The Lovers and the Despot is the kind of documentary that tends to be praised for being “like a spy thriller.” As in its story plays out like one in a fiction film. Maybe this doc will receive that comparison from critics, too. But it’s not like anything. It is a spy thriller. Albeit one that doesn’t focus on the spies. And it doesn’t play like a scripted movie in form. It’s a standard doc, structurally, dependent on talking heads and supplemented by archival footage. However, it does buck from convention in the primary sort of footage it employs: fiction movie clips.
The British production, directed by Robert Cannan (Three Miles North of Molkom) and Ross Adam and executive produced by Nick Fraser, chronicles the incredible tale of Korean movie star Choi Eun-hee and her ex-husband filmmaker Shin Sang-ok, who were separately kidnapped in 1978 and brought to North Korea and united under the service of supreme leader Kim Jong-il. The remarried pair made many more movies together as prisoners of the DPRK, and for a while they were actually happy to do so. In 1986, they finally got away.
Choi does the brunt of the narration through her interview, since Shin died a decade ago. Some of his perspective is featured, however, by way of microcassette tapes they recorded secretly during their time in North Korea, including conversations between him and his temporary producer/dictator. There is plenty of nonfiction footage of Choi and Shin, before and during their kidnapping, but most of the time the events told are illustrated by scenes from South Korean cinema — some starring Choi — that seem to be literally adapted from rather than to her words.
The decision to use those clips is brilliant considering the occupation of the subjects, whose tale is corroborated in the film by spies and officials from both halves of the Korean peninsula (those representing the DPRK obviously since having defected), as well as Choi and Shin’s kids, other family members and additional persons who helped with the ultimate escape. Editor Jim Hession (who previously mastered subtle yet powerful meaning in his work on the underrated 2014 doc Rich Hill) mixes the movie clips with propaganda footage from North Korea, too, correlating a cult of personality parallel between Kim Jong-il and the celebrity couple. Kim Jong-il was, for his country, an icon comparable to those famous for appearing on the big screen.
The Lovers and the Despot is sprinkled with quotes, mainly from Choi, that offer a related theme on how people perform in real, everyday life — not just if they’re supreme leaders of a nation but in any position or situation. “There’s acting for films, and then there’s acting for life,” she says. She acknowledges that the couple had to feign interest and happiness a lot for Kim Jong-il and for photos, which wound up in papers indicating they’d been turned into willing citizens of the DPRK, and she also recognized that many citizens of North Korea have to put on such an act their whole lives, with those not seeming genuine enough tending to disappear.
Choi also admits that she and Shin were indeed willing and content for much of their seven years held hostage. But her claim that “in extreme situations, people imitate what they’ve seen in films” is an even more intriguing point regarding what they went through. Shin apparently would look at their situation as if it were a movie and wonder, “If I made it…” And while imprisoned following his kidnapping, he took direct inspiration from The Great Escape in his plans to break free. Later, in an compelling defense for why she focuses on the positive parts of their eight years in North Korea, she says that if she wrote the screenplay of her life, she’d want to focus on the good times.”
Not every detail of the story is clear, as spoken about in the film, but that’s not necessarily a fault. Nor can it be blamed on any of the interviewees’ accents, although I feel the need to point out that there is a challenge for viewers in some of that. If anything, the thickness of the plot has just made me want to watch The Lovers and the Despot again. Maybe also read the recently published book about the kidnapping, Paul Fischer’s A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker (Choi and Shin also previously wrote their own takes on the story), just for the facts.
The doc, however, with its editorial choices, is surely the most discerning and profound outlet for this extraordinary tale. Hopefully it can serve as an example for how to properly make a conventional nonfiction film when lacking the luxury of real footage and the inclination towards reenactment. Especially when it suits a deeper depiction of events.
This review was originally published during the Sundance Film Festival on January 23, 2016.