Movie Review: The Lovers and the Despot (2016)
Imagine if Woody Allen and Diane Keaton, or maybe Blake Edwards and Julie Andrews, went missing in the 1970s, then turned up in the Soviet Union making movies for the Kremlin. Helluva story, right? This is the Korean version of that.
In 1978, Choi Eun-hee, a South Korean movie star past her prime, visited Hong Kong and disappeared. Her estranged husband, famed director Shin Sang-ok, went looking for her and also went missing. Years later, they turned up in North Korea, seeming happy, directing movies for Kim Jong-il. Traitors? Victims?
Documentarians Robert Cannan and Ross Adam argue for the latter, but vaguely. “The Lovers and the Despot” is a slow-moving, opaque documentary that raises more questions than it answers. Shin died in 2006, so for talking heads it’s mostly Choi, her kids, a few South Korean film critics, and a few U.S. State Department folks. Not enough light is shed.
Apparently Kim, a solitary child who fancied himself artistic, lamented the state of North Korean moviemaking and asked who in South Korea was good. Shin’s name came up, but it’s Choi who’s drugged and kidnapped first. She wakes up in Pyongyang, where she meets the dictator, is given communist tracts to read, fears for her life; but at least she’s living in a home and sleeping in a bed. Shin is imprisoned, tries to escape, is caught. Years go by. If Kim wanted the artists for their art, why are they not working? We get audio of Kim later explaining to the couple that his orders were misinterpreted. Choi says she kept a tape recorder in her purse, which is how we get the audio, but how did she get the tape recorder? And why is it never found on her? And how does the couple smuggle out all of their audiotapes?
Eventually, in just a few years, the two make dozens of movies in North Korea. Shin elevates its cinema the way he did in the South. Not hard, I suppose.
But we don’t get nearly enough on his background. Most of this information from Shin’s New York Times obit is news to me even after seeing the doc:
In South Korea, however, he was a major figure of that nation's film industry in the 1950's and 60's, leading some to call him the Orson Welles of South Korea. He directed at least 60 movies in 20 years, introducing techniques like the zoom lens and themes like the plight of women in Korean history. The South Korean government eventually took away his license because he refused to toe its line.
Even part of his plight in North Korea is news:
After eating grass and bark in prison for five years, he was suddenly released by Mr. Kim, who told him he could make any movies he liked.
Here’s irony: In South Korea, Shin went overbudget on movies, his studio went bankrupt, his family was kicked out of their home. In North Korea, one of the poorest, most repressive countries in the world, Shin suddenly had the budgets he never had in a capitalist society, as well as (within limits) free rein. Shin and Choi wound up living better than almost anyone else in North Korea, but were, by her account, fearful and miserable. So in 1986, in Vienna for a film festival, they escaped to the U.S. embassy. I'd give anything to know Kim’s reaction to their “defection." The history that’s waiting to get out there. The horrors.
In the doc, the best sense we get of these horrors doesn’t come from Choi but from official footage. During the funeral processions of Kim Il-sung in 1994, we witness the absurdly over-the-top lamentations of the people. It feels fake and awful, and in voiceover we’re told that those who didn’t mourn properly simply disappeared. Entire families disappeared. Everyone, in other words, is trying to outdo one another simply to stay alive. It’s a horrible tableau. It’s people competing to show the most sadness for the death of their worst oppressor.
“Lovers/Despot” is a little over 90 minutes long but feels longer. All of the areas of interest the documentarians could’ve delved into—South/North Korean cinema, in particular—and we wind up on this slow, meandering path.