The Lovers and the Despot
North Korea’s totalitarian regime provokes mockery: from The Interview’s rambling and ultimately underwhelming assassination tale to Team America: World Police’s tongue-in-cheek hyperbole, the Kim Jong dynasty has become something of a cinematic sham. That’s perhaps why Kim Jong-il’s own obsession with films is retrospectively laced with irony, permanently distorted by this boisterous flow of Western satire.
Directors Ross Adam and Robert Cannan attempt to break this mould with an outrageous factual narrative: the separate abductions of South Korean actress Choi Eun-hee and her estranged husband, director Shin Sang-ok, who are taken to North Korea at the behest of filmophile Kim Jong-il. Starlets of the South Korean film industry, the ex-lovers are coerced into making movies for the supreme leader of the DPRK, forced to fulfil his ambitions of building a North Korean national cinema to match and eclipse that of the South.
Adam and Cannon’s documentary revolves around a lengthy interview with Choi, embellished with additional inputs from her children and figures influential to the narrative. (Shin’s death in 2006 unavoidably prevents the feature from feeling truly complete.) Film clips are cut with archival extracts, which, in tandem with the personal accounts, gives The Lovers and the Despot an authentically immersive feel. Yet it is the secret recordings of Kim Jong-il’s voice that demand consideration.
Listening to an infamous dictator bemoan the state of his nation’s cinematic output (“Why are there so many crying scenes?”), whilst plotting the kidnapping of Shin (“How could I persuade him to come here?”), is an experience to be savoured, and offers an intriguing insight into the tortured mind of a tyrant. Nonetheless, the fine line between outlandish and cartoonish is dangerously straddled, and there is an inescapable sense that this portrait of the leader of the DPRK is hanging lopsidedly.
Subplots emerge that invite further reading: the rise and fall of Shin Films; South Korean state-sponsored repression; the creative autonomy Shin enjoyed whilst in captivity. The sheer scale of subject matter threatens to overwhelm, but Adam and Cannon keep their chosen piece of the saga firmly in the centre, allowing the peripheries to breathe without diluting the film’s focus.
The Lovers and the Despot may sound like a cheap Hollywood throwback to the days of the Hays Code, but this British documentary handles a potentially farcical topic with remarkable verve and self-awareness. Marrying the ridiculous to reality shouldn’t feel this smooth.
The Lovers and the Despot is released in selected cinemas on 23rd September 2016.
Watch the trailer for The Lovers and the Despot here:
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