The secretly taped voice of Kim Jong-il sounds more good-humored than you’d expect, but it nonetheless sends a chill through “The Lovers and the Despot,” a coolly gripping documentary account of one of the more bizarre true-crime stories ever to emerge from the film world. Delving into the 1978 kidnappings of the South Korean actress Choi Eun-hee and director Shin Sang-ok — ordered by the dictator himself, in a bid to elevate North Korea to major-player status in the global film biz — British filmmakers Robert Cannan and Ross Adam employ a straightforward approach bolstered by excellent access to the surviving parties and those illicit Kim recordings. While a more thorough archival survey of Choi and Shin’s work together (pre- and post-abduction) would have allowed for a deeper perspective, this real-life romantic thriller/escape saga still boasts enough fascinating details and angles to qualify as essential stranger-than-fiction viewing; Magnolia acquired global rights shortly after the film’s Sundance world premiere.
Among other things, “The Lovers and the Despot” is a poignant story of a love lost and then rekindled under the most harrowing circumstances imaginable. Early video footage recalls the storied celebrity romance of Choi and Shin, who met on the set of one of the director’s films and went on to make many more together. Before long they wed and adopted a son, Jeong-kyun, and a daughter, Myung-kim (both of whom are interviewed here), cementing their standing as South Korea’s pre-eminent celebrity power couple. But the couple’s golden moment didn’t last. Shin, a wildly obsessive filmmaking impresario, dreamed of turning his Shin Films shingle into an outfit on par with a Hollywood studio, but his ambitions far outstripped his ability to run a company and keep his budgets in line. The financial toll and Shin’s extramarital affairs had a crippling effect on the marriage, and he and Choi eventually divorced.
Choi, now 89, is the film’s primary interview subject, and she relates firsthand what happened shortly afterward: In 1978, she traveled to Hong Kong to meet a representative of the “Golden Tripod Film Co.” to discuss a possible film role, quite unaware that she was walking into a trap set by North Korean agents. She was forcibly abducted and then, after an arduous eight-day boat journey, arrived at Nampo harbor, where she was personally greeted by Kim himself (“Thanks for coming,” he said, extending his hand). Although she feared for her life, Choi says, Kim treated her with the utmost respect. During their visits, she witnessed firsthand his deep love of movies; he had projection equipment in every room and would often show her films, as well as give her communist literature to read.
As frightening as Choi’s experience was, Shin’s was far worse, albeit shrouded in even greater mystery; because the director (who died in 2006) isn’t able to tell his own story, a certain vagueness persists in the reconstruction. After searching for his former wife in Hong Kong, he too was kidnapped but, rather than being taken directly to Kim, wound up in a detention center where he was subjected to torture, brainwashing and solitary confinement; four years passed before he was released from prison and brought before Kim, who later acknowledged there had been some “misunderstanding” on the part of his staff. Shin and Choi were reunited and from that point on were treated as the Dear Leader’s friends and consorts.
Cannan and Adam rely on an effective weave of dramatic re-creations and unidentified movie clips (many of them from Shin’s oeuvre) to illustrate their narrative, which surges ahead at a breathless clip on the strength of its twists and turns alone. Also at their disposal are the expertly assembled testimonies of Choi and her children, plus intelligence officials and film-world luminaries with close knowledge of the case. But their most valuable resource by far is the audio archive of recordings that Shin and Choi secretly and courageously taped when they were in Kim’s presence, affording the first opportunity for those outside North Korea to hear the dictator’s voice. We hear him excerpted at length throughout the documentary, raging about the inferior quality of North Korea’s films one minute, praising Shin for his talent and his bright future the next.
Indeed, perhaps the most striking irony of the whole story is that with Kim’s support, Shin was able to resume working at an astonishing rate of productivity, churning out 17 films in about two years, many of them starring Choi. Word of the reunited couple’s whereabouts — and the semi-rejuvenation of their film careers — eventually became known, as did the fact that they were making films again; many concluded that the two were having a grand time, or that Shin had deliberately entered North Korea rather than being taken there by force. On the latter score, the recordings at least provide solid evidence to the contrary. They also offer some sense of the dangerous, lion’s-den intimacy the couple must have felt with Kim, whose vocal praise and financial generosity were not enough to keep them from plotting their daring escape in 1986, the details of which are unspooled in breathlessly suspenseful fashion.
A fuller and/or more footnoted sampling of the films that Shin and Choi made together would not have gone amiss, particularly with regard to their North Korean output; one suspects a fascinating documentary could be made on that subject alone. (We do get a few dreadful-looking clips of “Souls Protest,” the 2000 film that was intended to be North Korea’s answer to “Titanic.”) But it remains a crackerjack yarn and an artful character study whose central protagonists come through in vividly human dimensions: Choi gives heartrending voice to her fear and resilience, while the late Shin comes across as a deeply flawed but inspiringly passionate individual.
The eerie, lingering power of “The Lovers and the Despot” lies in its steady shift in emphasis to the third character in its title, as it lays yet one more crime at the feet of a dictator who kept his people in unspeakable psychological bondage. If Kim Jong-il intended to glorify his country through moviemaking, then this documentary achieves precisely the opposite: Some of the most haunting footage is of the thousands of weeping mourners gathered in Pyongyang following Kim’s 2011 death, whipped into a frenzy of ludicrously exaggerated emotion. Choi, in describing her own survival, inadvertently nails the plight of those among whom she lived for eight terrifying years: “There’s acting for films. Then there’s acting for life.”