If you’ve ever been an artist, it’s a deal you’d consider as well. Imagine nearly unlimited creative freedom, completely unlimited budgets, a guarantee of continued employment, and the ultimate captive audience. Particularly if your career had been winding down and bankrupting you anyway, what would you do?
There’s just one catch: your bankroller is basically the most evil man in the world, and he’s held you in prison for five years. And your ex-wife too.
Yes, The Lovers and the Despot is another bizarre chapter in the life of Hollywood-besotted North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il who, in the ’70s, had his favorite South Korean actress kidnapped, and her ex-husband director, so that they’d ultimately (he hoped) make great movies for him. Using reenactments, photos you can’t believe they procured, and illicit recordings obtained at great risk to the captives’ lives, directors Rob Cannan and Ross Adam have made the documentary they themselves always wanted to see on the topic. It’s a story that some in South Korea still insist director Shin Sang-ok made up. For the directors, it was difficult finding people to even talk about it, but a former CIA agent, an escaped poet from Kim’s court, a Hong Kong detective, and actress Choi Eun-hee herself combine to put the pieces back in place.
Choi, who has outlived both Shin and Kim, was the first to be taken, while attending a festival in Hong Kong. No Liam Neeson came to look for her, but Shin did, even though he had previously left her to have babies with a younger leading lady. Shin, however, was the real prize, someone Kim (who at that point was effectively running North Korea already for his father Kim Il-sung) had had his eye on for a while. Aware of the artistic limits of his own totalitarian state, the despot-in-training wanted movies with less crying scenes and more content that could get their movies seen overseas. With Shin in hand, he hoped to prove–however falsely–that his was the nation of creative freedom and a paradise for artists. Those five years spent force-feeding him propaganda in a prison camp? Just a simple mistake, of course…a case of Kim’s men “misunderstanding” his purpose for their guest.
Audio of Kim has rarely reached western ears, but Shin knew early on that his story would probably not be believed unless he had proof. You’ll hear many of his surreptitious recordings in this movie, and they create a portrait of Kim as far more self-aware and astute than you might have imagined. Jokingly referring to himself as “a midget’s turd” in order to break the ice, and cannily critiquing his own propaganda films, he came off initially to Shin as a huge fanboy and a genuine lover of film. But the screws slowly tightened, as Kim gradually forced the artist to transition into a propagandist, a role for which many in the south still do not forgive him.
I’d bet money that there will be a dramatic remake of this story, as much of it is too cinematic-sounding not to be. Prompted by his own identification with movie heroes, Shin successfully escaped the prison at one point, only to be caught when he finally fell asleep while train-hopping. When he and Choi finally decide to defect, she describes the moment as feeling like a slow-motion shot. It’s like the real-life version of The Interview, but one that doesn’t underestimate the intelligence of a dictator.
And you’ll never guess, unless you already know, what Shin did in Hollywood afterwards. You can look at up, but I strongly urge waiting for the ending of the documentary to find out, as it makes a fantastic punchline.
Five burritos for The Lovers and the Despot, which, given the available resources, is not just the best documentary it can be, but probably the best it could ever be…short of Kim himself rising from the grave and granting the directors an audience, along with all his spy footage.
Featured image: Magnolia
Luke Y. Thompson is a member of the LA Film Critics Association and Nerdist’s weekend editor. He also types stuff on Twitter.