Starring: Choi Eun-hee, Shin Sang-ok, Kim Jong-il
Director: Robert Cannan, Ross Adam
Running Time: 97 mins
The Lovers And The Despot is a British documentary about the story of famous South Korean director Shin Sang-ok, and actress Choi Eun-hee, who were kidnapped on the orders of Kim Jong-il, and used to produce numerous films intended to turn North Korea into a thriving movie industry.
This is such a bizarre story, but one that’s just strange and frightening enough to be absolutely fascinating. Although this documentary doesn’t always keep the more unsettling but enthralling elements at the forefront of the story, the events themselves are stunning enough to hook you from start to finish, and with some excellent interviews and very rare tape recordings, you get an incredible look into the secret world of not only North Korea, but who former leader Kim Jong-il really was too.
Let’s briefly start off with some of the film’s flaws. As fascinating as the story itself is, this documentary spends far too long at times on some relatively inconsequential parts of the whole affair, and in those periods, you do lose that powerfully weird and unnerving sense that the story of the kidnapping and the couple’s imprisonment over such a long period of time.
However, this isn’t a typical look at North Korea, because it’s really about the three main characters at play. On the one side, you have director Shin Sang-ok and actress Choi Eun-hee, who were once married and had two adopted children. Their back story is very interesting, particuarly with regards to their mixed fortunes in the once booming South Korean film industry, and how that played into how they felt in North Korea.
On the other, you have Kim Jong-il. At the time that the events took place, he hadn’t yet become official leader of North Korea, but due to his father, Kim Il-sung, being in ill health, he effectively had the majority of power. Now, Kim Jong-il was always a very enigmatic and somewhat bizarre figure when seen on the news, but what this shows is a completely unexpected side to him that’s absolutely fascinating to see.
And while the story of the kidnapping and imprisonment is absolutely enthralling, there’s nothing more unsettling and strange than Kim’s obsession with the movie world. Most evident in a series of secret tape recordings of conversations with him, it appears that Kim was not only a huge film lover (and that’s films from all over the world), but also a man with a very deep artistic sentiment, in contrast to what you’d expect from the dictatorial oppressor that he was.
Don’t think that the film is in any way softening Kim’s image, but it’s showing you a totally different side to him, and with fascinating insights from the kidnappees and experts on North Korea, you understand that there was always something about him that just wasn’t quite right, to the extent where he would order agents to snatch former stars of South Korean cinema and bring them to him, just for the benefit of his country’s film industry (which ended up including the lamentable Godzilla remake, Pulgasari).
On the whole, I was really interested by The Lovers And The Despot. It’s not a perfect documentary, and feels a little rough at times when getting down to the most fascinating elements of the story at hand, but with some brilliant interviews and incredible material that gives you such a close look into North Korea and Kim Jong-il, there’s something really unnerving yet absolutely enthralling about what happened back then, and that’s why I’m giving this a 7.6.