The way you watch Ross Adam’s and Robert Cannan’s The Lovers and the Despot is likely to depend on whether you know the story or not. To those who are coming to it afresh, this is an extraordinary tale which is another example of the old adage that truth is stranger than fiction: one of South Korea’s leading film actresses and then her ex-husband, a leading film director, kidnapped to the North by the cinephile Kim Jong-il in order to give the North Korean film industry a boost. Director Shin Sang-ok was the prize, and actress Choi Eun-Hee the lure, kidnapped first in order to bring Shin, willingly or otherwise, to Pyongyang.
North of the border (and after Shin had several years in confinement) they made 17 films together in the space of just over two years, before defecting to the US in a tense escape in Vienna. While in the DPRK, they appeared to be loyal supporters of the future Dear Leader. From their perspective, it was the only way to secure the best lifestyle and the best resources to support their film-making, but to sceptical observers in the South it was evidence that they were willing defectors. But while in the North they were secretly recording their conversations with their captor and sponsor – an extremely dangerous process in itself – thus providing evidence that they were not there of their own accord.
Those who are already familiar with the story will be watching for how the astonishing tale is told. Clearly, documentary cameramen were not present at every moment of the dramatic story: how, then, to tell a tale which unfolded 30 years ago and more, particularly when for eight of the years covered by the documentary the protagonists were in North Korea? First, we have the above-mentioned tapes that the couple managed to smuggle out. There are also plenty of still photographs of Shin and Choi in the North.
In addition, the archivists and researchers worked hard to provide video material for the movie. There is some riveting footage of a press conference in which Shin and Choi are presented to the American press on their arrival in the US following their defection to the West. There is other archive footage of Shin and Choi at various points, such as film festivals. In addition, one particularly rich source of video came from Eastern European archives, where the researchers found footage of everyday street scenes in Pyongyang and also footage of the Mass Games from the period. These scenes provide good “mood music” for the storyline but at times they outstay their welcome as they hold up the pacing.
For some key moments, the directors have had to film reconstructions, using the same grainy look as the archive footage. The style of these reconstructions, with their slightly blurry focus that matches the graininess of the original footage, and with much of the shooting being of the actors’ backviews, adds to the sense of mystery.
Although Shin Sang-ok himself passed away in 2006, his widow Choi Eun-Hee was available and was the main witness which guides the flow of the documentary. Other talking heads include Michael Yi, a Korean American intelligence operative involved in the debriefs following Shin and Choi’s 1986 reappearance in the West, and Iain Hall, a member of the Hong Kong police force who was involved in the investigation of Choi’s mysterious disappearance from her Hong Kong hotel in January 1978, leaving behind an unpaid bill and sundry cosmetics on her bathroom’s vanity unit.
The directors also did well to secure interview time with Shin and Choi’s adopted children, Choi’s brother, US diplomatic staff from the period and film critics who were close to Shin. They even spoke to former Shin employee and famous director in his own right, Lee Jang-ho (Man with Three Coffins), who tells us that even at the time there were doubts about Shin’s kidnap story.
We also have prominent defector Jang Jin-sung talking to camera. In his book (Dear Leader) he documents the international kidnap initiative launched by Kim Jong-il, and is thus a relevant witness to talk about such a high profile incident. Perhaps however he is given too much screen time: he gives background about the nature of the Kim “psychological” dictatorship which though interesting takes up time which might better have been spent exploring other aspects.
For example, for a movie with the title that includes the word “lovers”, I would have liked more focus on the “love” aspect: Shin’s initial wooing of Choi was more interesting than the documentary suggests. She was already married to an older and abusive husband. Perhaps Choi, as the main source of material for the film, didn’t want to talk about her life pre-Shin. Also, we don’t hear too much about how she felt when Shin had his affair: her reaction is more a sense of outrage that this junior actress should have the temerity to steal her man, than a deep sense of hurt. Maybe she had seen it coming: Despite his initial ardent wooing of her, Choi said that in subsequent years “he suppressed his affection for me”. She explained this away as Shin being caught up in the passion for film-making. “I nicknamed him the Wild Horse” she says in her interview with the film-makers, while in the background we a see a clip from Shin’s 1968(?) film Homeless Wanderer in which a Lone Ranger type character rides his horse hesitantly across an empty landscape.
The marrying of clips from Shin’s films with each turn of the narrative is one of the documentary’s strengths. Romantic scenes, invariably involving Choi as Shin’s regular lead actress, illustrate their early relationship; a shot of a young man being mugged outside Seoul station illustrates a part of Shin’s life where, in debt, he lived in fear of gangsters; and as Choi settles down to a lonely life of captivity in North Korea a scene is shown from a film in which the leading lady looks over the mountains presumably in the direction of a long-lost family member. And here we have a minor frustration with this film’s handling of its material. It would be really interesting to know what these Shin films are, and when they were made. Sometimes we are told (as with homeless wanderer above, and with Runaway – one of the films he made in the North) but too often we are left to guess.
One final difficulty with the movie is brought on by the subject matter itself. How to finish a film on a high note when the story itself is a bit of an anticlimax? Shin and Choi escaped to the West in 1986 and from then on nothing truly filmworthy happened. Shin failed to make any impact on Hollywood, and one of the clips from his Three Ninjas franchise that was shown in this documentary was frankly laughable. The final minute or so of The Lovers and the Despot chooses to continue the story of the DPRK post-Shin: the deaths of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il and the continuation of the Kim family dictatorship with Kim Jong-un. This ending felt a little bit like padding: surely most viewers know a little bit of contemporary North Korean history? I would have preferred the time spent looking back on Shin’s life as a film-maker, highlighting some of the gems in his celluloid legacy.
But these are minor quibbles. The documentary is a considerable achievement, and the team did well to secure Choi Eun-hee’s consent to make it when she had turned down so many previous requests. Directors Ross Adam and Rob Cannan speculated, in the Q&A that followed the London premiere on 23 September 2016, that being neither Korean nor Japanese was an advantage: they were less likely to have any pre-conceived angles on the story. The result is a highly watchable movie.