The Lovers and the Despot

The Lovers and the Despot

By Adam Cook


If you’ve done any research on the late North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il, then you know that he was a devoted cinephile. In fact, he even published a book in 1973 entitled On the Art of Cinema. He apparently had projectors in every room of his home, and a library of over 15 000 movies. In the new documentary, The Lovers and the Despot, British filmmakers Robert Cannan and Ross Adam bring to life one of the most bizarre stories in film history, which revolves around Mr. Kim and a famous South Korean actress and a director, Choi Eun-hee and Shin Sang-ok.

A very successful actor/director team, Mrs. Choi and Mr. Shin disappeared in 1978 in the middle of their careers only to re-emerge in a hyper-productive slate of North Korean-produced films, much to the public’s surprise. In 1986, they entered the U.S. Embassy in Vienna claiming that they had been kidnapped by Kim Jong-il and held against their will, forced to make movies and forced to live as dictated by Mr. Kim, who wanted to improve the North Korean film industry. It’s one of those stories you just couldn’t come up with if you tried, and The Lovers and the Despot recreates the harrowing saga in dramatizations, intercut with interviews with Ms. Choi (Mr. Shin died in 2006) and others, as well as compelling archival footage. One of the greatest finds here is that Ms. Choi and Mr. Shin recorded their meetings with Mr. Kim, and the voice of the great dictator, in its cheery, enthusiastic conviction, can be heard for the first time.

Just one of what must be countless odd and tragic stories of exploitation within the totalitarian society of North Korea, but also a tale of the exploitation of performers and artists in the film industry that resonates in a larger context, The Lovers and the Despot is a documentary that cautions against the arrogance and naiveté behind any individual or group that tries to harness talent for a particular agenda. The result of such megalomania isn’t great cinema but great pain and sadness.

Of interest for historical, political, and movie buffs alike, this is a docu-drama with a spy movie undertone and a story you’ll be telling your friends at parties for years to come.

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