Shin Sang-ok and Choi Eun-hee were more than a married couple, they were also two of the biggest stars of the silver screen in South Korea during the 50s & 60s. He was the Prince of Korean Cinema, a prolific director who produced 2 or more films per year. And she was his princess, a cherished actress in the country for close to 20 years.
As Robert Cannan and Ross Adam’s riveting documentary The Lovers And The Despot reveals though, their life was no fairy tale. After adultery led Choi to divorce Shin, the pair were individually kidnapped to North Korea by order of Kim Jong-il, who wished for them to help enliven his nation’s sycophantic and sentimental cinema output; “why are there so many crying scenes” asks the ‘Dear Leader’ on one of the covertly recorded tapes that were somehow smuggled out of the communist country, “this isn’t a funeral”.
It would have been so easy for Adam and Cannan to simply spin another amusingly inflammatory case study on the deluded North Korean dictator who believed himself to be a god, out of this stranger than fiction source material. So it’s to their credit that they tend to refrain from being openly critical of Kim Jong-il, and even attempt to contextualise his complete concentration of power: “He was clearly an awful leader and an awful person as an adult” remarks a U.S. State Department official, “but one has to feel a little sympathy for this boy unable to live anything like a normal childhood”.The emphasis, however, remains steadfast on Choi and Shin. Combining the testimony of an 89-year-old Choi – Shin sadly died in 2006 – with a seamless blend of stock footage and reconstruction, the filmmakers extract an insightful story of companionship. Their direction is poised, balancing dark moments of horror – Choi’s describes her abduction in harrowing detail – with light moments of happiness – the relief when the estranged couple are first reunited in the North is truly heart warming.
Given the multifaceted nature of the story, it’s to be expected that certain elements make less of an impact: the section on Shin’s initial time spent imprisoned in a concentration camp is sorely underwritten. What always comes through, however, is the emotion. Throughout the film, Choi compares her experiances to that of a Hollywood movie, yet in the end she sees that there’s nothing remotely cinematic about it; “it was hard,” she concludes sombrely, in a line that isn’t lifted from a script, but that comes straight from her soul.