Review: The Lovers and The Despot

Lacy Lew Nguyen Wright - October 22, 2016

What do you do when all the movies in your country are awful but you don’t know how to make your own? When you’re Dictator Kim Jong-Il, you kidnap your favorite director and actress.

One of the most bizarre yet shockingly true events in international history was the kidnapping and escape of famed South Korean director and his actress wife, Shin Sang-ok and Choi Eun-hee. An incredibly famous and talented duo, the two were kidnapped and spent close to a decade in North Korea, making films for North Korea Supreme Leader and cinephile Kim Jong-Il, before escaping in 1986.

The film follows their bizarre ordeal that at times feels like an old Cold War era spy movie than anything based on real events. It’s filled with candid photos and videos of the couple’s time in North Korea, the dictator’s life and interest in their films, and their daily lives.

The couple’s time in North Korea was not as harsh as many would expect. Treated kindly by the dictator, the two were able to continue making films and travel to festivals with the limitless budget they lacked in South Korea. Tapes Shin secretly made of his conversations with the leader, and his own personal voice journals reveal the intimate relationship the director had with Kim Jong-Il, laughing together over the phone and producing movies together.

It is from there that the documentary begins to explore the couple, their potential Stockholm’s Syndrome, and questions as to whether or not director Shin was kidnapped, or possibly defected. Kim clearly supported Shin’s work, and developed a close friendship with the director, revealing his hopes for the film and how they would reflect his country.

The Lovers and the Despot is a worthwhile watch just to learn the details of this peculiar ordeal, but it feels in many ways haphazardly put together. It jumps from one segment to another, without transition or a cohesive structure that makes often it hard to follow. With the exception of one fairly cheesy escape segment, the majority of the movie is built not of re-enactments, but of old footage from Korean cinema that mirrors their experiences. The documentary fails to indicate where the clips came from, whether they’re from Shin’s film, actual footage, or other sources, blurring what is reality and what is fiction. It’s disorienting and feels unrealistic, unable to ground a tale that already is so hard to believe.

Previously the family and those involved in the case had avoided discussing this incident, because it is still a source of much contention in South Korea, where many people view Shin and Choi as traitors , not victims. And to this day, the CIA still considers this case classified, refusing give access or even acknowledge the existence of the tapes Shin recorded.

Directors Robert Cannan and Ross Adams put the story together from Choi herself, and the copies of tapes she had. The Lovers and the Despot, which is the directorial debut for Ross Adams, and only the second film to be directed by Robert Cannan, comes only a year after Paul Fischer’s book on the same story, A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker. Despite the time that has elapsed since this incident, the subject matter is still highly controversial and required tough choices from the directors on what to explore within this film, without endangering people involved who are still alive today.

As much as Adams and Cannan should be lauded for bringing this story to screen, the biggest travesty of the film is that it gives ample screen time to the lovers of the film, but fails to thoroughly address the titular despot. While intriguing, this film is a missed opportunity to delve into the life and personality of Kim Jong-Il, and the political context and culture of North Korea that makes this incident so harrowing.

“Why do all of our films have the same ideological plots? There's nothing new about them. Why are there so many crying scenes? All of our films have crying scenes. This isn't a funeral,” complains the Supreme Leader.

The film closes with the death and funeral of Kim Jong-Il, and footage of thousands of people sobbing hysterically for him, just like the movies he so despised.

Lacy Lew Nguyen Wright

Lacy is a senior studying Art History and Urban Education Policy. And like her coffee she's small, strong but comes with a kick. Lacy covers documentaries and gender representation in media.