Docu-Thriller Peeks Behind Korea's Curtain

The Lovers and the Despot
(UK, 98 min.)
Dir. Rob Cannan, Ross Adam
Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Who knew that Kim Jong-ill wanted to be Adolf Hitler, Joseph Goebbels, and Leni Riefenstahl rolled into one? North Korea’s notorious supreme leader is at the centre of the fascinating documentary The Lovers and the Despot, as is his unexpected love for film that fuels this enthralling story. This stranger-than-fiction docu-thriller unravels a wild tale. It’s a thrilling cinematic caper, but also a uniquely revealing glimpse behind the curtain of one of the most secretive countries in the world.

This doc by Rob Cannan and Ross Adam recalls the Oscar-winner Searching for Sugarman in that it takes an absorbing, captivating, and entertaining story that is almost too good to be believe, and then finds a handful of great storytellers to unfurl the tale with gripping gusto. The film tells the true crime yarn of director Shin Sang-ok and actress Choi Eun-hee, a husband-and-wife power team in the South Korean film scene. They’re riding high with a string of hits gaining international fame, doing their nation proud on the festival circuit, inspiring their compatriots, and becoming idols.

As is the case with many famous couples, though, the marriage didn’t last. Choi recalls in interviews how she left Shin (who died in 2006 and appears only in archival footage) and continued her career on her own despite walking away from a once-great relationship. However, their divorce wasn’t a final separation personally or professionally as The Lovers and the Despot reveals how Chin was abducted from a hotel room and smuggled into North Korea by boat. There, she became the welcome guest (re: hostage) of Kim Jong-il, who wanted to use her stardom to make movies that could speak to the masses while elevating North Korea’s stature on the international scene.

Cue Shin, who himself is taken into the bizarre plot. The lovers must make films for the despot and they ultimately create propaganda where they used to create art. The various talking heads in the film—spies, film critics, historians, and family members—offer recollections of the story that conflict or don’t entirely add up. Some say Shin was abducted, for example, while others say he entered North Korea willingly to offer himself to Kim to ensure Chin’s safety.

Similarly, The Lovers and the Despot reveals how differently two people might react to the same situation. Chin resists Kim’s charm and jokes, and she instead notices the regimental ordering of her diet and dress that signals a dangerous captor. Kim, however, seduces Shin with his enthusiasm as a producer. The film explains how Shin’s ambitions in South Korea often outpaced his means, so Kim’s willingness to throw money at his propaganda mission delivered budgets bigger than those that the director could ever imagine south of the border. The artists and the dictator crank out movies faster than Woody Allen makes them, producing a whopping 17 films in under eight years.

Kim isn’t much of a producer, but his interest lets this Argo-ish caper expose a character rarely caught on film. Interviews fuel the intrigue while a healthy amount of stylised re-enactment footage gives the doc the pulse of the thriller as the Sin and Choi escape death, Hollywood-style.

The value of The Lovers and the Despot comes not so much through its entertainment value or white-knuckler of a story. Rather, Cannan and Adam find a wealth of material that shows what Kim was like as a man and a leader. Choi recalls episodes in which she and Shin captured conversations and evidence on a tape recorder to document their ordeal. These audio tapes offer invaluable soundbites of the Korean dictator in action. Even the spies who appear in The Lovers and the Despot speak of encountering the man’s voice through these tapes. The recordings offer Kim a surprising level of humanity as he speaks of his dream and vision, but they also reveal a troubled man, which the first-hand accounts from Choi further as he speaks of escaping his regime.

The Lovers and the Despot illustrates the creation of a false national identity through art as images without an element of humanity create god-like figures. Snippets of the iconic footage of North Koreans in states of hysterical mourning for Kim Il-Sung show the effects of brainwashing through iconography and propaganda, and the power that images play when people have so few alternatives to counteract them. This doc is a suspenseful tale, but also a telling one about the films we love and the dreams they may inspire.

The Lovers and the Despot opens in Ottawa at The ByTowne and in Toronto at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Friday, September 30.