The Lovers and the Despot: Not a Prequel to Team America: World Police But Could Be, by Ian Brill
Ross Adam and Robert Cannan’s documentary The Lovers and The Despot is about love, but many kinds of love. The romantic love between South Korean director Shin Sang-ok and actress Choi Eun-hee are at the center of the story. But the loves for self-expression, power, country, and family also figure into the story. It makes for both an amazing romantic adventure and spy tale.
The film follows the strange twists and turns of Shin and Choi’s lives and, in doing so, has an episodic feel. The first section of the film is about the birth of Shin and Choi’s love but also serves as a glimpse into the South Korean movie industry of the 50’s and 60’s. Indeed, one of the pictures we see of a young Choi has her next to Marilyn Monroe at a film festival. Shin is no longer with us, but much of the film is Choi looking back at her life from the present. She tells us of the heights Shin brought her to, but also how dedicated he was as a filmmaker. His dedication led to an affair with another actress and the marriage, which at this point expanded into a family with a son and daughter, is over by the 70’s.
At the same time, North Korea’s heir apparent, Kim Jong-Il, desires to improve his country’s films. He wants Shin, and to get him, they get Choi (the film is a bit fuzzy here, but it seems the news of their divorce may not have been known when this plan was in the works). Choi is lured to Hong Kong to meet a producer, and is kidnapped. Shin comes looking for her, and suffers the same fate. At this point, Adam and Cannan include recreations that are shot in an austere manner. They are made to look like they are from these bygone eras, down to the grainy film stock. It lends a dramatic and cinematic feel to the film, which is welcome when it is so dependent on talking heads. Between the recreations and use of vintage footage, the Hong Kong kidnappings make for gripping stuff.
Shin and Choi are both in North Korea but separated for about five years. They are both prisoners, in their way. Choi is kept close to Kim. She lives a life of wealth, but one with no freedom. She and her adult children all speak of the pain the separation caused them. Shin is a much more traditional prisoner. He lives a life of torture and terror until he confesses his allegiance to Kim and North Korea. For five years, he doesn’t. His love of film is never diminished. He performs a prison break inspired by The Great Escape. But he only gains his freedom, or some version of it, when he relents and agrees to make films for Kim.
The film then becomes a curious psychological case. Kim offers Shin and Choi make their films with unlimited budgets and creative control. All the resources he had to fight for in South Korea now come easy (well, expect for the five years of tortured imprisonment that preceded them). There is audio of Shin telling Kim how pleased he is with this situation (the film is a rare place to hear Kim Jong-Il’s voice). Is Shin sincere or is he saying this as a survival tactic? Did the dedicated filmmaker finally get everything he wanted, via a Faustian bargain? Adams and Cannan make the smart decision to not make any definitive statement on this.
The only real insight we have is that they did try to reach out to their family. This leads to South Korea’s plan to save them. The strange of combination of film lore and spy story come together, when international film festivals and film critics figure into a rescue mission.
The documentary tells a strange story but one that will have you thinking deeply about what love and creativity mean in different circumstances.
I’ve heard from other people that while Choi was kidnapped, Shin willingly defected and his accounts are not reliable.