Hollywood is full of unscrupulous, power-mad producers, but none of them could ever hold a candle to Kim Jong-il. Fondly remembered as a sociopathic dictator, the former “Dear Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” was also a notorious cinephile who — even before his father bequeathed him supreme control of the country — actively tried to weaponize motion pictures in order to fortify ideology at home and bolster North Korea’s reputation abroad. He even wrote a book about film theory called “On the Art of the Cinema,” a revolutionary text which offers almost as much insight into movies as “The Art of the Deal” does into business.
Needless to say, when Kim required something to enhance the local industry, people tended to do whatever was necessary in order to make it happen; after all, “You’ll never eat in this town again” is a particularly dire threat in a place that’s plagued by severe food shortages. So when Kim, frustrated by the tired ideological plots that defined North Korea’s national cinema, wondered aloud how he might lure a great South Korean director to come work in Pyongyang, his lackeys knew exactly what to do: They kidnapped one. But first, they nabbed his leading lady — his once and future wife.
Those interested in North Korean culture may already be familiar with the strange saga of Shin Sang-ok and his leading lady Choi Eun-hee, but “The Lovers and the Despot” offers its definitive telling. Built around newly recorded testimony from the 89-year-old Choi, this straightforward documentary is shaped by the unmistakable confidence of an incredible story. It helps that Choi makes for a vibrant and deeply feeling subject, Shin’s widow reiterating her personal history with the tainted zeal of a life that sounds like a movie but aches like a scar.
Which isn’t to say that relatively untested filmmakers Ross Adam and Robert Cannan — it’s Adam’s first feature credit, while Cannan previously co-directed a doc about a tantric sex commune in Sweden — rest on their laurels. On the contrary, they corroborate Choi’s first-hand recollections with a wide variety of secondary sources, their roster of talking heads ranging from spies to film critics to the couple’s children. Best of all are the snippets of audio recordings that Shin and Choi surreptitiously recorded during their conversations with the Dear Leader, in which you can practically hear the eggshells cracking under their feet as they try to appease their captor (winning line: the dictator unironically lamenting that people in North Korea are “so close-minded”).
But this is where the plot thickens: Kim was also their financier. For Choi, that didn’t do much to complicate matters. But for the hyper-ambitious Shin, who had been squeezed out of the increasingly censored South Korean film industry just prior to his disappearance, working for Kim was a second lease on his dream.
In a clever (if somewhat self-defeating) move, Adam and Cannan use relevant clips from Shin’s work to illustrate their interviews; an emblematic sequence finds them intercutting grainy footage of a man running after a train in order to visualize Shin’s failed escape attempt from the Pyongyang concentration camp where he was kept for five years. It’s a neat way of allowing the late director to insert his voice into the narrative, but it has the perverse effect of underscoring the film’s own deficiencies — any number of documentaries have bristled against the restraints of non-fiction, but “The Lovers and the Despot” so desperately wants to be one of Shin’s sweeping historical dramas that it often feels like the pitch video for its own studio remake.
In one crucial scene, a recording of Shin’s voice returns us to his imprisonment, during which he relied on his encyclopedic movie knowledge to imagine a way out. How would Steve McQueen do it? His words are translated into big blocks of English text against an otherwise black frame. Cinema literally kept this man alive, and the movie about him emanates from the screen with all the magnetism of an animated Wikipedia page. The halfhearted recreations that pop up from time to time aren’t much of an improvement.
The effect that this disconnect has on Choi and Shin’s story is significant — the more harrowing their situation becomes, the harder it is to appreciate the hell they went through. The more suspense that Adam and Cannan try to gin up without deviating from their game plan, the less time they have to devote to the psychology of their characters. Their film makes it easy to appreciate an impossibly bizarre series of circumstances — two divorced and creatively declining storytellers, stolen from their lives and reunited in an authoritarian nightmare where they were given everything they always wanted in exchange for their freedom — but it skims over how Shin weighed his newfound resources against the loss of his civil rights, or how Choi forgave the man with whom she was forcibly reconciled for cheating on her (and having two kids!) with a younger actress.
The result is a skin-deep portrait of a story so interesting it feels like you could burrow into it for years. And so, when “The Lovers and the Despot” finally crawls to a close, you’re left with one thought above all others: This could make for a really great movie, some day.
“The Lovers and the Despot” will open in theaters and on VOD on Friday, September 23.