The voice on the tapes is tinny, high-pitched, and demanding, and it belongs to one of the most reviled dictators of the 20th century. “Why do all of our films have the same ideological plots?” shouts an irate Kim Jong Il to his advisors in rare recordings audiences can hear in the new stranger than fiction documentary The Lovers and the Despot. “There’s nothing new about them. Why are there so many crying scenes?”
Pop culture obsessions are always curious avenues into the psyches of tyrants, and Kim’s movie nerdery is one of the wackier case studies you can find, as skewered mercilessly in Team America: World Police. In The Lovers and the Despot, British documentarians Ross Adam and Robert Cannan access extraordinary insight into North Korea’s late supreme leader through the eyes of director Shin Sang-ok and his movie star wife, Choi Eun-hee—the South Korean power couple who were kidnapped in 1978 and forced to make movies for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
“There was something mythological about it,” Cannan told The Daily Beast from London this week, recounting how he and Adam zeroed in on the wild tale of kidnapping, imprisonment, and glamorous moviemaking under pain of punishment that Shin and Choi spun when they finally escaped Kim’s regime in 1994. “What we loved about the story was whether or not it was true, it was a great story. We were really intrigued by Shin; if it wasn’t true, how did he come up with this amazing story?”
Like many observers over the years—particularly in South Korea, where many still believe the couple had willingly defected to North Korea—Cannan and Adam weren’t quite sure if they bought Shin and Choi’s story. It was nearly beyond belief and the stuff of, well, movies: After Choi was kidnapped in Hong Kong by Kim agents posing as film producers, her estranged husband Shin went searching for her and ended up in a North Korean prison for four years, fed grass and rice for trying to escape, and underwent intensive indoctrination reprogramming at Kim’s behest.
The spouses were finally reunited in the middle of Kim’s lavish birthday party, where the then-cultural minister giddily orchestrated their meeting like he was Hayley Mills in The Parent Trap. Kim’s master plan? To make them churn out new films North Korea could be proud of—and match, if not top, the quality of film coming out of their rivals to the south—and make North Korean movies great (again). Naturally, Kim also took a producer credit on Shin’s films.
Shin, who would make 17 pro-government films with Choi during his North Korean period, appears in the film via the incredible documents and diaries he left behind. His trove of materials include hours of illicitly recorded conversations with Kim, whose voice had rarely been heard in public—let alone heard whining about South Korea’s superior movies.
“Choi says that this was Shin’s idea—that once they were reunited and they made this plan together, their only hope of ever escaping would be to go along with Kim and build his trust,” explained Cannan. “Of course, part of them were probably flattered at the idea of having this blank check to make films as well.”
The secret recordings, made on a hidden Dictaphone during the couple’s meetings with Kim, would serve as proof of their innocence should Choi and Shin manage to escape. “Shin had fallen out with the South Korean government before he went missing,” said Cannan. “It was a convenient time for him to wind up in North Korea, working with Kim Jong Il, and they knew this would look very, very dodgy, and it’s a serious offense in South Korea to have anything to do with North Korea. They knew that it was worth the risk to record the tapes—that it was something they had to do.”
Shin, after all, had made multiple failed escape attempts early on inspired by Steve McQueen’s The Great Escape. The filmmaker, perhaps, had the sense that what he and Choi were living through was the kind of larger than life adventure only seen in movies—alternately drama, thriller, romance, and black comedy.
“They only had the idea to do that because Shin had a sense for storytelling beyond himself,” said Adam. “The idea of recording this was risking death… and an act that’s very much a filmmaking trope from a spy movie. They thought every plan through as if it was a screenplay.”
Choi, sitting for an interview in the film at age 89, seems to see the absurdist humor in the perilous situation she found herself in all those years ago. According to her, Kim broke the ice after unceremoniously abducting her with a friendly greeting: “Aren’t I small, like a midget’s turd?” The film makes it easy to see Kim, who succeeded his venerated father Kim Il Sung in 1994, as a childlike terror obsessed with imposing his will on his suffering country, shaped by a bizarrely sheltered and privileged upbringing with movies his only window to the outside world. When Shin later reflected on the ordeal to the press, he revealed Kim’s esoteric tastes: James Bond movies—especially the Sean Connery years—Friday the 13th, Rambo.
“He liked lot of pretty pulpy stuff from America,” said Cannan. “I think because his upbringing was so insular and his outlook was so constricted he could kind of experience the rest of the world through movies. So he had the idea that crime in America was really just terrible because he just watched a lot of cop films. I think it did inform his outlook on the world but he also saw it as this great opportunity to control North Korea and shape their mentality.”
Kim Jong Il was also apparently the biggest despotic movie buff, 35mm print collector, and film pirate in modern history. His personal library of film prints is said to have numbered over 20,000—mostly stolen or copied from sources around the world. “Shin said Kim had prints of his films he thought were lost forever,” laughed Cannan. “And we met people who had it on good account that he’d issued orders to all the North Korean embassies around the world to borrow films from a huge list of films for them to pirate and send copies back to Kim Jong Il’s library.”
Magnolia Pictures acquired The Lovers and the Despot out of the Sundance Film Festival in January and will release it this week stateside—around the same time the doc opens in South Korea, where it’s the subject of great curiosity. As for North Korea, the filmmakers aren’t too worried about getting on current DPKR leader Kim Jong Un’s bad side, despite the cyberattack Sony Pictures allegedly suffered at the keyboards of North Korean hackers over The Interview.
“I don’t imagine we are on their radar,” said Adam.” I think they have bigger problems to deal with and we haven’t made any contact with North Korea… yet.”
Shin passed away in 2006, two decades after the couple fled from their handlers during a film festival appearance in Vienna and successfully sought asylum from the American embassy. They lived under federal protection in Virginia before moving to Los Angeles, where Shin dove back into the film industry under the name “Simon Sheen,” launching one of the most indelible ’90s kid movie franchises of the decade.
Few might realize now that, years after making Kim Jong Il’s cinematic dreams come true in films like Pulgasari, a Communist Godzilla knock-off, Shin conceived of and silently co-directed the 1992 classic 3 Ninjas, about a trio of young brothers who fight off bad dudes with the training of their Japanese grandfather. The film spawned three sequels and marked an early hit for director Jon Turteltaub, who went on to helm Hollywood flicks like Cool Runnings, While You Were Sleeping, and the National Treasure blockbusters.
Indeed: 3 Ninjas’ story is credited to Kenny Kim, a writer whose only other credit is 1994’s Jeungbal, a political thriller about the abduction of a Korean diplomat armed with classified information. Cannan and Adam interviewed Turteltaub for their film and tease that more of his relationship with Shin might pop up in future DVD extras.
“They co-directed it together,” explained Cannan. “Shin kind of did the camera work and the blocking and the action sequences, and Turteltaub worked with the actors.”
“Shin didn’t really speak English, that was the trouble,” added Adam.
It was Turteltaub, they say, who brought in the Disney execs who eventually acquired the film, picking it up to fill their 1992 release slate. 3 Ninjas turned into a modest hit and spawned three sequels that Shin executive produced. Does that mean, I asked Cannan and Adam, that we have Kim Jong Il to thank—even if indirectly—for 3 Ninjas?
They laughed. “A blow to the West and to Western culture,” quipped Adam, “to affect the minds of the young… with 3 Ninjas.”