The Lovers and the Despot
Directed by Rob Cannan and Ross Adam
Opens September 23
Even after the disaster of The Interview, the West’s appetite for stories of North Korean tyranny rolls on. The Lovers and the Despot tells the tale of the kidnapping of South Korean director Shin Sang-ok and his wife Choi Eun-hee, who were forced to work in the North Korean film industry under Kim Jong-il’s supervision. Kim dreamed of rivaling Hollywood, or at least winning prizes at the Berlin Film Festival, and he thought Shin was the man to take North Korea there.
For a documentary about filmmakers, The Lovers and the Despot seems oddly unconcerned with Shin’s actual work. While it uses copious clips from Shin’s films, none are identified by name or date. You’d never guess from this film that his North Korean-made Pulgasari, a bizarre Godzilla take-off-cum-anti-capitalist allegory, has become a minor cult film in the US. It’s available for free viewing on YouTube, and worth seeing. Nor does the film discuss Shin’s highly acclaimed early 60s South Korean work in much depth.
Cannan and Adam seem more interested in making a demo reel for a Homeland episode. Combining interviews, images of a tape recorder playing conversations between Shin and Kim, film clips, still photos and re-creations, they aim for an ominous atmosphere. The interviews themselves are interesting enough to sustain a film—even in her 80s, Choi has retained her charisma. But instead, the directors focus on “dramatic” scenes of spinning tapes as synthesizers drone away gratingly on the soundtrack. The re-creations, seemingly shot on faded stock (or electronically processed to look that way), beg for Argo comparisons.
The story of Shin and Choi is full of ironies that go unexplored. They were divorced at the time of their kidnapping; being forced to live together in North Korea actually saved their marriage. It also brought Shin’s career back to life. Choi admits to a work schedule that would have given Rainer Werner Fassbinder pause: seventeen films in a little more than two years. Yet the South Korean government, which would be a dictatorship until the late 80s, had banned Shin from filmmaking in 1974, and he was vulnerable to kidnapping because he was desperately looking for international co-production deals. The Lovers and the Despot offers some fascinating glimpses into one of the world’s most secretive countries, but it’s far too concerned with looking cool too delve as deeply as it could.