The lovers in this fascinating and bizarre documentary are popular South Korean actress Choi Eun-hee and gifted and prolific director Shin Sang-ok, both highly esteemed figures from the 1950s forward. In 1978, they vanished, leaving behind family, including two adopted children, and a shocked public. By this time, they had divorced; the career-obsessed, philandering Shin had fathered two children out of wedlock and romanced a young and utterly inexperienced actress who starred in his films. But the estranged couple later resurfaced in totalitarian North Korea, reportedly kidnapped by the movie-mad crackpot despot of the title—Kim Jong Il (the late father of Kim John-Un), for whom they were kept busy making well-financed feature films meant to boost the world’s view of North Korea as a world player.
While cranking out what Choi claims were 17 films, they also rekindled their relationship and in 1986 plotted a daring if clumsy escape that might have made a great sequence in a Cold War thriller. The documentary, from British filmmakers Robert Cannan and Ross Adam, uses archival footage, clips from Shin’s feature films, new interviews with Shin and others, incredible, sectretly captured audio recordings of Kim himself and some reconstructions. The result is a tale that plays like a spy thriller but leaves enduring mysteries intact. It’s also maddeningly vague, content to tell one hell of an insane story without investigating the underpinnings. Still, the movie delivers at least some of the goods.
One of the best and most telling moments is a recording of Kim Jong Il explaining away why Shin spent a harrowing four years in a labor and brainwashing camp and was kept apart from Choi, whom he had apparently followed to Hong Kong to investigate her disappearance. The dictator tosses it all off as a case of his “people going too far.” His lack of any trace of genuine emotion is chilling.
The film’s ace in the hole is Choi, who, in her eighties now, speaks with awe, heartbreak and humor. But she too is clearly keeping secrets, laughing things away when they get too close to the bone. Even as the film ends, questions remain. Was Shin actually kidnapped? Did he defect, or did he collaborate with Jong Il? Was he out to save his wife or set her up for abduction? Even if the filmmakers don’t know for certain, what do they think happened?
As a look into the vagaries of the filmmaking process, as a peek behind the veil of a deeply unknowable cultural landscape, as a gripping thriller, The Lovers and the Despot is well worth a shot.