The Lovers and the Despot (2016) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): Kidnapped by their North Korean fan

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I and most South Korean people are familiar with a bizarre real-life story presented in documentary film “The Lovers and the Despot”. It was one of the most infamous things committed by the North Korean dictatorship during last 66 years, and what two South Korean celebrities experienced during their harrowing captive status in North Korea was full of absurd moments which could only happen in a morbid, deranged communist society like North Korea’s.

Unfortunately, the documentary does not fully delve into its rich story material. Although the story itself is compelling for its bountiful absurdities and ironies to be explored, the documentary merely scratches the surface while somehow distancing itself from two of its central figures and the complex nature of their uneasy human/political/business relationship, and it only shows and tells what I already knew too well.

During the 1950-60s, South Korean director Shin Sang-ok was one of the leading filmmakers in his country, and his actress wife Choi Eun-hee and his family members told us a number of interesting episodes around that time. Choi tells us how they became more than mere collaborators as working together, and their surviving children also have their own stories to tell as remembering how they grew up under their famous parents before Shin and Choi eventually divorced due to Shin’s affair with a younger actress who became his second wife.

Around the 1970s, both of their careers took a downturn. As Shin’s brother says, Shin was not good at handling business matters, and his movie production studio went downhill as suffering from financial problems during that time. After her divorce with Shin, Choi tried to go her own way as an actress, but she also had a money problem just like her ex-husband.

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Meanwhile, Kim Jong-il, the son of Kim Il-sung, was becoming his dictator daddy’s heir apparent in North Korea, and he was eager to do something to distinguish himself. As some of you probably know, Kim was a big movie fan, and, as heard from his private conversations secretly recorded by Shin and Choi, he really wanted to improve the local movie business, which, as he petulantly pointed out, had only produced bland, monotonous flicks without much fun and entertainment for their target audiences.

Kim ordered his men to kidnap Choi and Shin, and Choi and the archival recordings of Shin’s testimony tell us how they were suddenly kidnapped by North Korean agents in Hong Kong during 1978. Choi was lured first by a North Korean spy who promised her a good career opportunity in Hong Kong, and she describes to us that terrifying moment when she belatedly realized the trap she walked into. After her disappearance was reported, Shin went to Hong Kong for finding his ex-wife, and he also walked into the trap ready for him in the end.

8 days after her kidnapping, Choi found herself at a North Korean port as being released from her drugged state, and that was when she met Kim Jong-il for the first time. She was afraid of what could possibly happen to her, but then she eventually came to adapt herself to this fearful new environment. Kim treated her like a very important guest, and she did whatever she was expected to do because, well, there was no possible way out for her.

What Shin went through in the meantime was less gentle to say the least. He was sent to a concentration camp, and it was only after 5 years that he and Choi had a tearful dramatic reunion at Kim’s birthday party. As rekindling their mutual love, Shin and Choi both saw that the only way to get any chance for escape was giving what Kim wanted from them, so they soon resumed their careers as fully supported by their No.1 North Korean fan, who was happy to provide whatever the couple needed for making movies.

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As Choi admitted, this filmmaking period of theirs was a highlight point for both of them in spite of being trapped inside their gloomy circumstance. They made more than 15 movies during a few next years, and she recollects that fantastic moment when one of her movies made during that period received the huge standing ovation at the Moscow International Film Festival. As getting more favors from Kim, Choi and Shin were eventually allowed to go outside North Korea for boosting and promoting the North Korean movie business, and that was the point when they finally found a golden opportunity they had been desperately waiting for.

The directors Ross Adamo and Robert Cannan juggle interviews, archival clips, and grainy reenactment footage to propel the narrative of their documentary, but the final result feels more like a passable DVD supplement feature for a movie inspired by the incident. That fascinatingly enigmatic and eccentric personality of Kim Jong-il only gets a brief explanatory scene, and you will not get any clear, helpful information on Shin’s filmmaking career, which is not so familiar even to many of contemporary South Korean audiences. In case of the climactic moment involved with Shin and Choi’s escape attempt, this is too short to generate additional narrative tension, and the movie also omits several interesting things in Shin’s life and career, including his second wife who took care of their two kids alone after the kidnapping incident or a notable fact that he made an anti-North Korean movie right after returning to South Korea (A small note: that movie was based on the bombing incident of KAL 858 in 1987, and its crude, atrocious bombing sequence made some 9-year-old kid terrified of boarding airplanes for years).

Right after I watched ”The Lovers and the Despot” during this Thursday evening, I asked an older audience whether he learned anything new from it, and he flatly replied that there was nothing new for him although he had a fairly good time with it. The documentary may satisfy you if you just want facts, but it could be more insightful and amusing if its makers reached for more from their foreign perspective.

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