In 1978, South Korean actor Choi Eun-hee went missing. Her ex-husband, director Shin Sang-ok, made it his mission to find her when he too went missing. Their whereabouts remained elusive for some time, but the answer that eventually came out was stranger than any potential explanation: the two South Korean celebrities had been kidnapped by none other than North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il with the purpose of having them direct films for the people of North Korea; films that have the production value of a legitimate work of art while also espousing North Korean communist values. This stranger-than-fiction story has finally been given its own cinematic representation in the form of Robert Cannan and Ross Adam’s documentary The Lovers and the Despot.
The film is a very traditional doc, which is a bit of a disappointment when you look at the source material. Thankfully, it makes excellent use of its traditional elements. Framing the talking heads ‒ including the likes of Choi, her and Sang’s children and government agents involved in the situation (Sang is missing due to the fact that he died a decade before) – are large amounts of important documents; including photos of the kidnapped individuals with Kim, audio recordings of Sang and Kim, and rare footage of the works of Sang and Choi, whose films are perhaps less famous than their ordeal. The Lovers and the Despot also focuses on some of the oft-ignored parts of the story, including the couple’s divorce and eventual, possibly forced remarriage in North Korea. At certain points in the film, the filmmakers try to expand their story which is harmful in the long run; Cannan and Adam’s forget that their film is about a tragic couple and not (necessarily) about North Korea or Kim Jong-il.
If you are looking for a documentary about a strange, strange event, The Lovers and the Despot does the trick – the aforementioned missteps are easy to swallow. As a side note, if you find yourself wanting a deeper understanding of the North Korean film industry as a whole, follow up this interesting documentary with The Great North Korean Picture Show.
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Shahbaz Khayambashi: @Shakhayam