After spending eight days at sea drugged and captive on a cargo ship, South Korean actress Choi Eun-hee disembarked her nautical prison in a strange port, in a strange country.
Terrified and disoriented, the film star—who’d shared photo ops with Marilyn Monroe and traveled the world—hid behind tinted sunglasses. Her arrival was heavily documented by waiting photographers. So was the moment when North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il welcomed her, his hand outstretched to the superstar whose kidnapping he’d just orchestrated: “Thanks for coming.”
The strange but true story of North Korea’s film-obsessed Dear Leader and the filmmaking couple he abducted in order to build his own Hollywood in the heart of the DPRK makes for surreal suspense in The Lovers and the Despot, the U.K.-produced documentary that premiered at Sundance.
Debuting just over a year after the Sony hack allegedly launched by North Korea over the Kim Jong Un-skewering Seth Rogen comedy The Interview, the melodramatic doc vividly recounts how Choi and her director ex-husband Shin Sang-ok spent eight years in gilded imprisonment as Kim’s guests, coerced into rebuilding the nation’s movie industry.
No film may ever top Team America: World Police’s inflammatory depiction of North Korea’s eccentric, baby-faced tyrant, but The Lovers and the Despot, directed by Robert Cannan and Ross Adam, similarly ponders Kim’s obsession with Western pop culture and the bizarre upbringing that molded his curious mystique-shrouded personality.
“Kim Jong Il had a most bizarre childhood,” remarks former U.S. State Department official David Straub, one of several talking heads whose recollections of Choi and Shin’s wild tale help propel the film. “He was clearly an awful leader and an awful person as an adult, but one has to feel a little sympathy for this boy unable to live anything like a normal childhood… Kim Jong Il thought of himself as an artiste.”
Combining an at times emotional interview with the now 89-year-old Choi with archival footage of propaganda-fueled masses and slyly styled reenactments, the film cleverly appropriates scenes from films Shin and Choi made before and during their years under Kim’s thumb to illustrate their turbulent, often harrowing experiences. That in itself lends an unusually intimate touch to the proceedings that you’d be hard pressed to find in many other docs.
The directors also make liberal use of a true rarity: tape recordings of Kim that Choi and Shin made covertly when they began plotting their escape.
“Why do all of our films have the same ideological plots? There’s nothing new about them,” we hear Kim complaining, bemoaning the lack of North Korean product accepted into prestigious international film festivals around the world. “Why are there so many crying scenes? All of our films have crying scenes. This isn’t a funeral. Is it?”
He seems to grow increasingly irate, envious of South Korean cinema’s superiority over his country’s primarily clichéd nationalist output. “I’ve looked at South Korean films. I asked my advisor, who’s the best director in the South? He said that his name is Shin. How could we persuade him to come here? How could I lure this director Shin?”
At the time of her abduction in 1978, Choi had been divorced from Shin, with whom she had adopted a son and a daughter, for two years. Once the darlings of South Korean cinema, they’d gotten married after she starred in a movie of his. But their power coupling dissolved in 1976 when he ran off with a younger actress, with whom he had two children out of wedlock.
Choi had been enticed to Hong Kong by a female producer who turned out to be a North Korean spy. Choi recounts how, while visiting a seaside retreat with the woman and the woman’s young daughter, she was grabbed by men in a speedboat and whisked away to the North. Days after her arrival, she says, she met with her captor fearing that either Kim Jong Il or his father, dictator Kim Il Sung, had nefarious intentions for her. Instead, he broke the ice with a joke.
“Look at me! Aren’t I small like a midget’s turd?”
Choi was received as a guest and given tours of Kim’s projection rooms, one in every house. “To me, he seemed like an artist who loved films,” she said. When he had his staff show her a film in which a woman kills her lover when he tries to leave her, she understood: “He needed me. But if I betrayed him, he’d kill me.”
It’s easier to sympathize with Choi more than her husband Shin, who passed away in 2006 and can only be heard sharing his version of events in microcassette recordings. Even friends and the couple’s grown children paint Shin as a dogged filmmaker who was born to make movies but not so great with budgets, the gangsters who came to collect on unpaid bills, or his own family. (Why Shin’s other children and baby mama are never again mentioned is one of several nagging gaps the film leaves unexplained.)
But Shin’s experience was more brutal by far than that of his wife, who describes how she took to gardening and screaming fits to deal with Kim’s stifling control over every aspect of her life. When Choi disappeared—an event puzzled over in newspapers across the globe—he went looking for her. The doc’s talking heads peg him as a North Korean agent, too, but according to Shin’s own account he was similarly taken prisoner by the DPRK and held for years in prison camps, subjected to brainwashing attempts and brutal treatment.
When he attempted to break out of prison, he turned to the movies, modeling his plans on Steve McQueen’s The Great Escape. Once he broke free, however, he found himself hopelessly lost. Shin was recaptured and sent back to prison—a trauma, the film argues, that made him wary of attempting escape again in later years without a solid plan. Back behind bars, he tried a different tack: pledging allegiance to Kim.
After enduring four years as a prisoner of North Korea, Shin was finally reunited with Choi—by surprise, at Kim Jong Il’s swanky birthday party. Before the long-separated lovers even had a chance to catch up on all those lost years, they had to pose for a photo with Kim sandwiched between them.
The irony of living under despotic rule as Kim’s kept artists in residence was that Shin and Choi were given more artistic and financial freedom than they’d ever had before. Under their Shin Films banner, the couple made 17 films in two years ranging from war epics to a Godzilla kaiju knockoff. Choi admits it was pretty great to win awards for her work, even if those awards came from the few Communist countries she and Shin were permitted to visit.
The film’s spy movie trajectory builds to an intriguing conclusion as it details how the couple finally made their move to escape North Korea with the help of an international network of intrepid film critics. The directors bookend the crazy if seemingly incomplete tale with footage of the presser the shell-shocked couple gave after defecting during a film festival in Vienna, letting Shin’s own remarks contextualize their experience to the more skeptical of critics.
A few footnotes linger as The Lovers and the Despot explains what became of Choi, Shin, and Kim Jong Il after their fateful time together. Perhaps the most surreal development is the fact that Shin went on to direct the sequel to the ‘90s kids classic 3 Ninjas as well as executive produce two more films in the franchise.
The more sobering postscript is one that ties Kim Jong Il’s notorious cinephile streak to his emotionally manipulative hold over a nation of millions who believe he’s a god on earth that has never gone to the bathroom once in his life. Directors Cannan and Adam suggest a latent directorial aspiration in the way Kim, who never did get an internationally respectable film industry going in the DPRK, induced generations of North Korean citizens to “perform” displays of loyalty and leader-worship under pain of punishment.
Even current North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un gets a shout-out in the form of a warning in the film, which is set to be released this year after it was acquired by Magnolia Pictures out of Sundance. But no amount of frustrated movie geekery can account for the chain of succession charted from Kim Il Sung to Kim Jong Il to Kim Jong Un, whose collective seven decades of North Korean oppression paints the most panic-inducing picture of all.