“We should make movies together forever.”
Truth truly is stranger than fiction in Ross Adam and Robert Cannan’s captivating documentary The Lovers and the Despot. A story that dips into film noir, spy thriller and hostage drama territory, The Lovers and the Despot is crazy, true tale of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il, and the two filmmakers he kidnapped in order to jumpstart North Korea’s film industry.
Shin Sang-ok was South Korea’s hottest filmmaker. Handsome, skilled and blessed with a certain swagger, he produced and directed a string of films starring his wife, the popular South Korean actress Choi Eun-hee. The couple had children together, but that didn’t stop Shin from having an affair (and two children) with a much younger actress. The adultery lead to a divorce, and financial problems.
And that’s when the kidnapping started.
Unbeknownst to Shin and Choi, Kim Jong-il had hatched a plan to rejuvenate North Korea’s floundering film industry. At the time, Kim Jong-il’s father Kim Il-sung was still the leader of North Korea, but power was slowly slipping into Kim Jong-il’s hands. But Kim Jong-il was the opposite of his father: while Kim Il-sung was a man-of-the-people politician, Kim Jong-il was more closed-off, with an artistic temperament. He loved movies, but loathed North Korea’s filmmography. His solution: kidnap South Korea’s Shin Sang-ok and brainwash him into making movies for North Korea.
Lured to Hong Kong under the rouse of making a movie (and making money), Choi Eun-hee was drugged and spirited away to North Korea as bait. When Shin Sang-ok came looking to find out what happened to his ex-wife, he, too, was whisked off to North Korea. The couple spent years apart — Choi living under the watchful eye of Kim Jong-il, Shin in prison. But eventually the couple were reunited and given a modicum of freedom, provided they made movies for North Korea.
Directors Ross Adam and Robert Cannan recreate all of this will all the shadowy intrigue and mystery of a great espionage adventure, while Nathan Halpern’s haunting, somber score underlayers it all. Recreations mixed with footage from Shin’s films paints a remarkably cinematic portrait.. This is coupled with phone calls and conversations that Shin and Choi taped as “proof” for when they eventually would make their escape. They realized they would need that proof because thanks to propaganda media, it looked like Shin and Choi were having the time of their lives in North Korea instead of being held captive. And there’s a degree of Stockholm Syndrome at play, because despite their captivity, Shin — long plagued by production cost woes back in South Korea — finds he enjoys the financial freedom allotted to him by the North Korean film industry.
The Lovers and the Despot is enthralling. It hooks you from the get-go with its dramatic approach to the material, and pulls you deeper into its mystery as the story unfolds. It’s easy to see why someone would want to tell this story — the type of story that leads one to observe, “That might make for a good movie.”