‘The Lovers and the Despot’ ✭✭: When Dictators Love Cinema

This fascinating documentary, “The Lovers and the Despot,” will some day form the basis for a romantic thriller that will hopefully not be whitewashed. The two lovers were luminaries in the South Korean film industry and they were kidnapped by the despot–Kim Jong-il, the dictator of North Korea from 1994 until his death in 2011. This documentary opens on 23 Sept. 2016.

You might not be that familiar with this saga or Korean history in general. Filmmakers Ross Adam and Robert Cannan clue us in with intertitles: “In 1953, after a brutal war, Korea lay divided between the Capitalist South, backed by the Western powers and the Communist North, under Kim Il-sung, allied to the Soviet Union and China. The two sides were left facing each other across the most heavily armed border in the world. Locked in a tense military stand-off, they began to compete by other means.”

Kim Il-sung was the supreme leader of North Korea from its inception in 1948, just three years after the end of World War II, until his death in 1994. Kim Il-sung is the father of Kim Jong-il.

The documentary features tape recordings that the two lovers, Shin Sang-ok and Choi Eun-hee, surreptitiously took, including the voice of Kim Jong-il.

Choi Eun-hee (20 Nov. 1926) made her film debut in 1947 and was one of the biggest stars in South Korea. She was married to director Shin Sang-ok and they adopted two children, a girl and a boy–both of whom appear as adults amongst the talking head in this documentary. By 1978, Choi divorced Shin due to his infidelity. Her career was on the wane and so was his. Choi took a trip to Hong Kong to meet about a promising film project, but it was a trap set by Kim. Choi was kidnapped and made into an honored house guest.

Shin went to investigate his ex-wife’s disappearance only to be kidnapped. Before he would meet his wife again, he was imprisoned and indoctrinated. Reunited at a dinner party, the two soon remarried with the blessing of Kim Jong-il. Kim Jong-il’s purpose was to improve the quality of North Korean cinema. Shin did direct films for Kim, but in 1986, Shin and Choi were in Vienna for a film festival and were granted asylum by the United States. They moved to the United States and eventually came to Los Angeles where he directed a few movies before returning to South Korea.

The documentary was made too late to get more recent interviews with Shin who died in 2006. It does include re-enactments, especially of the kidnappings and explains why the recordings were so important. With the recordings is becomes clear that the couple were being held against their will and Kim’s motivation. While the separate interviews with Choi and their two children are good, there’s a certain sense of distance and control. There might have been more emotional impact if the family had been brought together as well.

For those that understand Korean, you might be puzzled that some of the recordings are in Japanese. Shin was born when Japan occupied Korea in a place that is now located in North Korea and he studied in a Tokyo university for about three years.

“The Lovers and the Despot” does include grainy vintage footage of Shin and Choi in Washington, DC (15 May 1986) in a press conference after they escaped and interviews with a person with a Korean Intelligence Agency and a film critic.

“The Lovers and the Despot” isn’t a perfect documentary, but one suspects it will be source material for a future movie on espionage.  Away in the North America, it might be hard to appreciate the kind of paranoia a country divided like North and South Korea would incubate. Even as an American in Japan, one probably fails to understand the suspicion and prejudice against Koreans without confirmation of kidnappings such as this one and other kidnappings of Japanese citizens that have more recently come to light. “The Lovers and the Despot” should be seen by those interested in Korea, East Asia and our future international relationships. In Japanese, Korean and English with English subtitles.


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