The Lovers and the Despot
Cert PG, 100 mins, ★★★★
The extraordinary, true tale that unravels in The Lovers and the Despot, a documentary from Robert Cannan and Ross Adam, might at first be dismissed as too incredible even for a thriller.
It begins, conventionally enough, with a love story between the glamorous actress Choi Eun-hee and the raffish director Shin Sang-ok, stars of the South Korean film industry in the 1950s and 1960s.
Shin and Choi married and adopted two children: a girl and a boy. When Choi – the principal narrator, since Shin died in 2006 – recalls that era, she remembers the reverential bustle around her celebrity, how service miraculously improved when she stepped on a plane.
Then the dream darkened: Shin and Choi split over his infidelity, and angry creditors massed as Shin’s film business ran into trouble. In 1978 Choi travelled to Hong Kong for work, but was drugged and abducted by a female “shopping guide” who was in fact a North Korean agent. When Choi finally came round after a hazy boat trip, she recalls, she was taken to meet someone: “A man held out his hand. ‘Thanks for coming,’ he said, ‘I am Kim Jong-il.’ ”
Kim Jong-il, the father of today’s Kim Jong-un, was a bouncy-haired, smiling dictator who presided over some of North Korea’s worst horrors. He was also an obsessive film fan who had noted Choi and Shin’s artistic success, and decided they were necessary to realise his ambition of creating an internationally admired North Korean film industry.
A portrait emerges of a friendless man-child, simultaneously deranged and canny, who had to import his playmates by force.
While searching for Choi, Shin was also kidnapped, after which he spent five years – including some in prison for trying to escape – before finally being brought to Pyongyang. Choi was summoned to Kim Jong-il’s birthday party, where the surprise guest was Shin. The pair clung together, acrimony forgotten, and agreed to work as the despot’s pet film-makers (they made 17 films in two years) while secretly plotting their own flight. In public they were celebrity propagandists for the repressive North Korean regime, yet in private they made courageous, clandestine recordings of conversations with the dictator.
I yearned for much more detail, but the existing story already bristles with fascinating insights: the dictator who staged his own reality, using a country as his theatre; the actress and the director compelled to play-act to save their lives, but who also experienced unprecedented financial freedom and some artistic success in captivity. The hardest role of all, one feels, was reserved for Choi and Shin’s children, who saw first their mother and then their father disappear without explanation, and were meanwhile vilified for being the son and daughter of perceived traitors.
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