Both enigmatic and illuminating, “The Lovers and the Despot” tells the story of South Korean director Shin Sang-ok and actress wife Choi Eun-hee — the Brangelina of ’70s South Korea — who were kidnapped in 1978, taken to North Korea, and forced by supreme leader Kim Jong-il to make movies that would gain recognition for the country’s film industry. The two risked their lives to escape to the West in 1986. Rob Cannan and Ross Adam co-directed the documentary, which Magnolia will release Sept. 23.
How did you refashion events?
Cannan: We knew we would have to re-create certain dramatic moments in order to pull people into the more thrilling aspects of the story. The re-creations sit somewhere between news clips and the period’s archives, most of which came from 16mm clips. We decided to shoot them on Super 8 so they would have period texture.
How did you get rights to archival footage?
Cannan: It was a very long process. The Korean Film Archive was restoring and digitizing some of the old South Korean films, so that helped. As for North Korea, there are many propaganda films that include footage of Kim Jong-il, with amusing English-language voiceovers, which were sent all over the world but in low quality. We found a roundabout way of getting better quality.
Was it hard to make it all look consistent?
Adam: It took planning. We tried to meld things together, but it can be very difficult, especially when there’s old video footage. In some cases it was a challenge to convince the archive that we wanted to go back to the original print, to get a scan of it, because that was just more work for them, and they wanted an unreasonable amount of money to do that. It took a long time to negotiate.
Was financing difficult?
Adam: Support came from all kinds of places — European broadcasters, the British Film Institute, Sundance Labs — but it was never enough. Every step of the way we had to cut corners, to do things on a shoestring. There was always something else to do that cost money. And when you’re making things in a foreign language and deal with translators, it means you pretty much can’t do anything without spending money. And we shot in many locations: Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, the U.S., and Europe. There were times when we thought, “How on Earth can we tell this story with the money we have?” Eventually we got through, but we didn’t get rich making this film.