The Lovers and the Despot




The title suggests a fictional work but this film deals with real-life events in Korea.

Lovers and the Despot


Given that this documentary has such an extraordinary story to tell, it is unexpected that this film by Robert Cannan and Ross Adam should bring to mind other movies, but it does. What we have here is a testament regarding the South Korean actress Choi Eun-hee and her partner, the late film director Shin Sang-ok, both of whom were well established when, one after the other, they disappeared in the late 1970s only to surface in North Korea. It appeared that the dictator Kim Jong-il, a film enthusiast who by 1978 was despairing of North Korean cinema, had arranged for them to be seized and brought north. Indeed, they would end up providing North Korea with a series of films more akin to love stories than to propaganda vehicles. When they escaped in 1986 and found asylum in America, they claimed that they had been kidnapped and had only played up to Kim Jong-il until such time as they could be  sure of getting away (an earlier bid by Shin when imprisoned had failed).


It is an intriguing story told here by Choi Eun-hee herself with comments from others including the two children adopted during her marriage to Shin (one that ended in divorce following his infidelity, a fact that did not prevent the couple from becoming reunited). There is a lack of relevant period footage that leads the directors to insert stand-in clips from Shin's films at times, but secretly recorded audio-tapes allow much of the story to be told directly and even the voice of Kim Jong-il is heard in this way.


This is undoubtedly fascinating, even if it does seem a bit padded out to reach feature length. It is no drawback that it brings to mind the 2010 documentary Cinema Kommunisto which dealt with another dictator keen on cinema, Tito in Yugoslavia, and that the recent fictional work Lost in Karastan similarly dealt  with a  filmmaker being led to make films for a despot. More relevantly still, it evokes memories of a masterpiece, Marc Wiese's film about Shin Donghyuk who grew up in a camp in North Korea from which he eventually escaped. That was Camp 14: Total Control Zone (2012) which retrospectively may have been slightly weakened by subsequent admissions from Shin Donghyuk that some facts in his story were not absolutely accurate. In the present case, doubts as to authenticity arose far more quickly: voices were heard suggesting in particular that Shin Sang-ok had gone to North Korea voluntarily. This film may want to refute those doubts, but that only make it the more regrettable that Cannan and Adam should resort from time to time to re-enactments that smack of artifice. In any case nothing here equals the impact of Camp 14, but that does not mean that this film with its extraordinary and sometimes improbable story lacks interest.




Featuring  Choi Eun-hee.


Dir Robert Cannan and Ross Adam, Pro Robert Cannan, Ross Adam and Natasha Dack Ojumu, Written by Robert Cannan, Ross Adam and Jim Hession, Ph Yoonseuk Back, Park Byung Kyu and Ric Clark, Ed Jim Hession, Music Nathan Halpern.

BFI/Creative England/BBC/The Documentary Company/Hellflower Film/Submarine/Tigerlily Films-Soda Pictures.
98 mins. UK/The Netherlands/France/USA/Republic of Korea/Germany/Sweden. 2016. Rel: 23 September 2016. Cert. PG.