Reviewer: Freda Cooper
Director: Ross Adam, Robert Cannan
Stars: Choi Eun-hee, Shin Sang-ok
Released 23rd September 2016
You couldn’t make it up if you tried. How a movie obsessed dictator-in-waiting kidnapped the top director and number one leading lady from another country so that they would make films for him. But what is probably one of the film industry’s most extraordinary stories actually happened – and it’s at last arrived on screen in the documentary ‘The Lovers And The Despot’.
The soon-to-be-dictator was Kim Jung-Il of North Korea, the director Shin Sang-ok and the actress, his former wife, Choi Eun-hee, both from the South, and they were whisked over the border in the 70s. Choi was the first to be taken, abducted by North Korean agents and taken to meet Kim Jong-il, who was in day-to-day control of the country, although his father, Kim Il-sung, was still the figurehead. Months later, Shin was also taken to North Korea and spent five years in prison. The couple were eventually re-united by the movie-mad heir, managed to gain his trust and made no less than 17 films in just over 2 years. But secretly they were plotting their escape, which they eventually pulled off in1986.
It’s such an outlandish story that a fictionalised version would be hammered for being too far-fetched. But directors Ross Adam and Robert Cannan have done their homework and have a remarkably wide variety of material at their disposal. Most fascinating of all is Shin’s own series of cassette tapes, which often give the film a whispered, almost covert, narration. The bigger surprise is that they also include some of his conversations with Kim Jong-Il himself, a man who never spoke to his own people so nobody – not even the CIA – knew what he sounded like.
While Adam and Cannan use plenty of documentary conventions – talking heads, including Choi herself (Shin died some years ago), photographs and newsreel footage – they haven’t set out to give us a conventional documentary. Instead, it’s often closer to a political thriller, with a touch of film noir, and creates an atmosphere of secrecy and suspicion that wouldn’t be out of place in a Cold War novel.
Kim Jong-Il was so fixated on movies that screening rooms were installed in all 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, sinking ship – 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’s 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 the North and we see some of it as well. The irony is that the dictator kidnapped the pair to improve his country’s image. In the cold, hard spotlight of this documentary, it’s apparent that he achieved the total opposite.