Neely Swanson

“The Lovers and the Despot” – A film to die for [MOVIE REVIEW]

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Kim Jong-il, Choi Eun-hee, and Shin Sang-ok in THE LOVERS AND THE DESPOT, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Kim Jong-il, Choi Eun-hee, and Shin Sang-ok in THE LOVERS AND THE DESPOT, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

by Neely Swanson

In an absolute case of “truth is stranger than fiction,” “The Lovers and the Despot” both defies credulity and inspires awe.  This documentary by Rob Cannan and Ross Adam tells the story of South Korean film makers, Shin Sang-ok, a director of renown, and his ex-wife Choi Eun-hee, that country’s most famous actress. In 1978 they were kidnapped in Hong Kong and brought to North Korea on the orders of Kim Jong-il, then the son of the ruling dictator. Kim was a huge fan of Shin’s and very unhappy with the quality of North Korean films. He felt that Shin and Choi could turn out a product that would reflect better on North Korea beyond its borders.

Making use of contemporary footage of Kim’s reign and his seemingly cozy relationship with Choi, much of which, at the time, seemed illustrative of the voluntary and privileged nature of the couple’s stay in North Korea. The directors also intersperse this actual footage with washed out shots made to look of its time and with clips of films made by Shin, first in South Korea and then in the North, a technique that lends a cinema verité feel to the documentary.

Choi, who had been lured to Hong Kong under the pretense of resurrecting her film career, was tricked and kidnapped by her contact, a woman who, it turns out, was a North Korean spy. Although the Hong Kong police investigated her disappearance, they were unable to solve the mystery until footage of her in North Korea was released. Shin, who had recently been divorced by Choi because of his extra-marital activities, flew to Hong Kong to try to find her and soon, he too, was spirited away. They were not, however, reunited until several years later because his escape attempt landed him in solitary confinement for several years. Eventually, deciding to cooperate, he is reunited with his ex and gained the trust and good graces of Kim who fundsed his filmmaking to an extravagant degree.

Choi Eun-hee and Shin Sang-ok in THE LOVERS AND THE DESPOT, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Choi Eun-hee and Shin Sang-ok in THE LOVERS AND THE DESPOT, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Doubts always followed the couple and South Koreans believed that they were the willing guests of Kim. Branded as Communists and traitors, it was clear that the escape that Shin and Choi longed for was going to be especially complicated and their acceptance back into the free world not a sure thing.

Interviews with the couple, their families, and government spokespeople lend credence to their narrative, especially given the tapes of conversations with Kim that they secreted out of the country. Still, the directors deftly take no stand on the veracity of the story; they merely allow Shin and Choi to lead the narrative. It is up to the viewer to try to discern the truth in this tale, one told almost entirely by the protagonists themselves.

Fascinating from the first frame, a window is opened on to the secretive society of North Korea and the little man who was handed his leadership role from his much more charismatic father. A case could be made that Kim Jong-il would have been happier as a producer in Hollywood (provided he could keep the absolute power he inherited).

“The Lovers and the Despot” is a compelling film of depth and mystery. Cannan and Adam have done everything right and present a wonderful story whose veracity must be determined by the viewer. I can see both sides, but whether it’s true or just convenient, it’s always entertaining.

Opening Friday September 23 at Laemmle’s Monica Film Center in Santa Monica, Laemmle’s NoHo 7 in North Hollywood and Laemmle’s Playhouse 7 in Pasadena.

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