Directed by Ross Adam, Robert Cannan
Starring Choi Eun-hee, Shin Sang-ok
Release 23rd September 2016
I know it’s a cliché, but you seriously couldn’t make up a story like this one – how the de facto ruler of North Korea kidnapped the South’s top director and number one actress so they could make films for him instead.
And that’s what The Lovers And The Despot boils down to. In more detail, film director Shin Sang-ok and popular actress Choi Eun-hee became South Korea’s golden couple when they married in the 50s, but it all fell apart when she discovered his affair with another actress. Divorced and now in Hong Kong in the mid 70s, Choi was abducted by North Korean agents and taken to meet Kim Jong-Il, son of the dictator at the time but in reality running the country. Some months later, Shin was also kidnapped, taken to North Korea and spent five years in prison. Eventually re-united by their movie-mad benefactor, the couple managed to gain his trust and made 17 films together over two years, before they managed to escape. Their extraordinary story was first revealed to the world in 1986.
It’s so bizarre that if a fictionalised version was made into a film, it would be panned for being too far-fetched. But directors Ross Adam and Robert Cannan have done their homework and, most fascinating of all, use Shin’s own series of cassette tapes as a whispered narrative to the film. Even more remarkably, they include some of his conversations with Kim Jong-Il himself, a man who never spoke to his own people so nobody knew what he sounded like. Not even the CIA.
While it uses many documentary conventions – talking heads, including Choi herself (Shin died some years ago), photographs and newsreel footage, it doesn’t set out to be a conventional documentary. Instead, it creates more of a political thriller, with a touch of film noir, and conjures up an atmosphere of secrecy and suspicion that wouldn’t be out of place in a Le Carre novel.
Not that the secretive North Korea would relish being in the spotlight in this way, but the film certainly gives us an insight into the country itself and its de facto leader at the time, ending with an even more sinister shot of current ruler, Kim Jong-Un. You can’t help but wonder what he would think of this film – and whether its makers will go through the same experience as Sony when they released The Invitation. OK, that was about the present dictator, this is about his dad. Same difference.
Kim Jong-Il was fixated on movies, with screening rooms in every single one of his homes. He eventually financed the making of a film called Seoul’s Protest, made in 2000, long after he’d lost the two shining stars he’d wanted to use for propaganda purposes. The film was his response to the success of Titanic and, inevitably, involved a massive exploding ship which sinks – and lots of people going down with it in dramatic style. It was never released outside of North Korea and, from what little we see of it in the documentary, it looks pretty basic stuff.
Choi Eun-hee, who celebrates her 90th birthday this year, is still remarkably glamorous and makes a beguiling, emotional narrator. She also delivers the most telling line of all. “There’s acting for films. Then there’s acting for life.” She saw a great deal of the latter while in North Korea and we see some of it as well. The irony is that the dictator kidnapped the pair to improve his country’s image, especially in the movie business. The film shines a spotlight on both that and his effect on his country as a whole. And in that cold, hard light, neither make flattering viewing.
The Lovers And The Despot is released today and was reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 22 September.