The Lovers and The Despot – Life Imitating Art

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Caught on tape by the kidnapped South Korean actress, Choi Eun-Hee, Kim Jong-il complains light-heartedly about the low quality of North Korean cinema. “All our films have crying scenes,” he jokes with Choi and her husband/fellow captive, director Shin Sang-ok, “this isn’t a funeral is it?” What is most distressing about this exchange, beyond the very fact that we are listening to a genuine recording of the seldom-heard dictator, is Kim’s jovial nature: the smooth, polite, socially adept manner in which he engages his prisoners. To Kim, they are friends, fellow artistic intellectuals – they are anything but two prisoners, forced into conversation with the despot after years of detention. The Kim we hear in this opening sequence is a far cry from the silent, brooding, monomaniacal dictator that the world has observed from afar; there is something intensely jarring about that.

The Lovers and the Despot, a new documentary from directors Robert Cannan and Ross Adam, uses this covertly attained audio to depict a ‘supreme leader’ that exists somewhere between cruel dictator and frustrated, stunted artiste. Kim’s experiments in state terrorism are widely known and largely ignored from this narrative. Instead, we witness the twisted mechanisms of a mind so focused on the cultural development and superiority of North Korea, that it ordered the kidnapping of one of the treasured directors of its greatest enemy, the South.

I’m not sure when I first heard the bizarre story of Shin Sang-ok and Choi Eun-Hee – probably in one of the myriad documentaries Vice made on the hermit kingdom. I was fascinated by the outlandish tale: the sheer absurdity of a dictator so disappointed in his own country’s filmic output that he would go to the extreme of kidnapping the filmmakers of another. Speaking of his attempts to escape the prison camp where he spent his first five years in North Korea, Shin says:

“When put in extreme situations, people imitate what they see in the movies.”

Without demonstrating any sympathy or attempting superficial empathy for the maniac, Cannan and Adam detail the ‘extreme situation’ of Kim’s life. Deprived of any real social interaction beyond that which was orchestrated by his father, Kim’s behaviour, his polite mannerisms, appear as theatrical imitations rather than rationally developed human behaviours.

The story of The Lovers and The Despot is largely told by Choi, along with some details from her and Shin’s two children and a number of observations from western film critics. The film’s opening sequence – Choi’s covert recording of Kim and Shin’s meeting – suggests an espionage narrative: at this early stage I half expected a tale led by Choi and Shin’s heroic, impromptu undercover work. Conversely, The Lovers and The Despot is a story of survival and adaption. The filmmaking couple feign ideological conversion; they satisfy the artistic whims of the dictator and end up making seventeen films together in two and a half years, with Shin directing and Choi as producer (underneath the nation’s perennial producer, Kim Jong-il, of course).

While Shin may not enjoy the artistic freedom he did in South Korea, funding is always available to him and he even has a studio named after him, courtesy of Kim. Consequently, despite being in a life-threatening situation, Shin cultivates a strange bond with the dictator. Speaking about his father, Shin’s son says, “He was so powerful, he could move mountains.” In the earlier accounts of Shin’s professional life, he’s shown as a commanding presence – an adored and highly respected artist, he was known as the “prince of Korean cinemas” in the 1950s and 60s. Shin seems to get something from Kim and North Korea that had long been denied to him in South Korea: an element of power. Accordingly, Shin is reluctant to betray the source of that power.

Without Shin there to tell us his side of the story, little more of this affiliation is revealed. The most fascinating part of the story, the relationship between Kim and Shin, cannot be expanded on beyond Choi’s observations and the brief glimpses afforded to us via her secret recordings. While this is an unfortunate yet unavoidable problem (Shin Sand-ok died in 2006), the film would benefit from some expansion on a number of details that are only lightly touched on. Shin’s absence is felt not only in its inevitability, but in certain plot points that are brought up only to be immediately dismissed – for example, his affair with a younger Korean actress. There is a bizarre, fascinating, dark and often touching story here – regrettably, it feels like there’s so much more to tell.

These are minor gripes and shouldn’t deter you from seeking out this compelling documentary. My biggest grievance is of a more particular sort – Prior to seeing The Lovers and The Despot, I’d read about 1985’s Pulgasari, a kaiju-style monster movie made by Shin in North Korea. Set in feudal Korea and based loosely on a popular myth, Pulgasari tells of a giant metal-eating monster that fights with a peasant army to overthrow a corrupt monarchy. Unfortunately, this bizarre, propaganda-fuelled kaiju doesn’t so much as get a mention here. I'm still praying for a Blu-ray.

- Martin Macnamara

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