It had been one of North Korea’s best-kept secrets: Kim Jong-il was a movie buff. In The Lovers and the Despot, we learn that the Dear Leader had a projection setup in each of his many houses. He also fancied himself a critic, lamenting a problem that international critics have been calling out in their respective industries for decades: the lack of originality in his country’s films. “There’s nothing new about them,” he’s heard saying on a tape. “People here are so closed-minded.”
To address this problem, Kim had a lightbulb moment. He’d employ a successful foreign director and actress and bankroll their projects. The professionals he chose were director Shin Sang-ok and his wife and muse, Choi Eun-hee. Both worked in South Korea. Kim wondered to his minions, “How could we persuade [Shin] to come here?”
Well, kidnapping is one method. First Kim swiped Choi in 1978, enlisting a secret agent to be her guide when she received an offer from a fake North Korean film company. Soon, strongarms were forcing Choi into Kim’s lair. “Thanks for coming,” he told his new personal actress.
Soon Shin was captured, too, but the pair—who were actually divorced at the time—weren’t reunited for five years. Separately, they were treated like prisoners, which Kim later said was due to “a misunderstanding.” One can only assume that the brainwashing attempts that both Choi and Shin spoke of were a goof, too. Chalk it up to what one U.S. official called Kim’s “very odd personality,” one shaped by a childhood of extreme isolation.
This oddness, and the heavy hand with which he ruled, is never really explored by co-directors Ross Adam and Robert Cannan beyond comments that Kim didn’t have the charisma of his father, Kim Il-sung, and that North Koreans under Jong-il were also controlled by an “emotional dictatorship.” For Choi and Shin, it was more like a confused Stockholm Syndrome: They openly declared their loyalty to North Korea and that they could never betray Jong-il. They said they were treated with “the utmost respect.” They were eventually allowed to travel throughout Europe. Yet they wanted to escape.
Choi tells her story here, accompanied by commenters such as her and Shin’s son and daughter, and various statesmen and film critics. She’d taped conversations via a recorder hidden in her purse after Shin remarked, “Even if we escape, no one will believe our story.” (Shin died in 2006.) She notes how they would instinctively parallel their realities to cinema: Shin thought of great filmic escapes as he was planning his; Choi pictured herself running in slow motion when they did finally make a dash.
These tapes, photos, and grainy (and somewhat cheesy) re-creations compose the bulk of the film, along with clips of Shin’s movies. The story’s strangeness makes it interesting enough, but it’s somewhat lacking in terms of what the couple’s day-to-day lives and mindsets were like while imprisoned. Shin was thrilled that he could make any film he wanted without worrying about money. Their son notes of a photograph, “They didn’t seem to be suffering at all.” So it’s difficult to feel the alleged desperation of the situation or an urgency to break free.
Sleeping only a few hours a night, Choi and Shin made 17 films for Kim (including North Korea’s first love story) over two years and three months. Kim instructs them on what to say to people who may be puzzled by their apparent defection from their home country, and an ulterior motive shows through: “Tell [people] you came here looking for true freedom… Now it’s a North-South face-off.”
The Lovers and the Despot opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinemas.