It can be kind of exhausting getting a dozen (or more) emails a day about movie X, Y, and Z. Do I want to see this? Do I want to learn more about this? And I’m sure I’ve turned down a lot of great movies because the sales pitch just didn’t do it for me. You’ve got to prioritize. (I don’t always make the right choices, but c’est la vie.)
Sometimes the things I go for feel sort of arbitrary; other times I’ll have heard some buzz about something and so I check it out just because someone else said it was good. I had never heard of The Lovers and the Despot, but the instant I read the summary I knew I had to see it. A documentary about a North Korean dictator kidnapping South Korean filmmakers to improve North Korean cinema? What?
The Lovers and the Despot
Directors: Robert Cannan and Ross Adam
Release Date: September 23rd, 2016
It’s 1978. Choi Eun-Hee is one of South Korea’s top movie stars, often starring in the films of her husband, director Shin Sang-Ok. North Korean Kim Jong-Il kidnaps her in Hong Kong. Then he kidnaps her husband. After years in a prison camp, eventually the two of them are reunited. Kim Jong-Il tells them to make films. They do. They make lots of them (17, in fact) and even travel to foreign festivals to show them. And then, of course, they escape. It all sounds a bit silly, but, of course, it’s all true. Oversimplified? More than likely, but ultimately True nonetheless.
The Lovers and the Despot tells this story almost exclusively through interviews, with Choi, her family, people involved with the case, etc. Shin passed away a decade ago, but some of his audio makes it in as well. The video and audio clips are interspersed with footage from Shin’s films (including some of the ones made in North Korea) and reenactment shots. I thought the decision to do reenactments was interesting, but their effectiveness is diminished somewhat by the footage from the films. In a couple of cases, rather than using reenactments, they pull directly from his films. Those moments are some of the most compelling, and everything really comes together. The reenactments are fine, but you’re hearing them narrated at the time, so they lacks any real oomph. They’re just there to keep you from getting bored. They’re successful in that regard, but they don’t do much more.
This stands in contrast with certain audio clips, which are literally just audio clips playing over a generic background. And they’re fine, but they’re also… ya know, audio clips playing over a generic background. At that point, you’re not really watching anything. And maybe you’re getting a little bored? Some people certainly might, though I can unequivocally say I did not. I didn’t know anything about this story before going into The Lovers and the Despot, and I was enthralled by the story itself from beginning to end. The audio-only parts could have just as easily been an exceedingly compelling podcast or something, but what’s important is that now I know this story, and that I have seen some footage from these North Korean films, and that I really, really want to see them now.
Choi Eun-Hee says at one point in the film that, if she were to make a screenplay of her life, she would gloss over the bad things. She would focus only on the good. It seems to me that The Lovers and the Despot did as well. There are hints here and there of the horrors that they faced, but nothing is ever explicit and the filmmakers don’t seem particularly interested in going down that path. Even though this is a film about the evil of North Korea, it’s not about the evils of North Korea. And while that may sound like some obnoxious semantic thing, it’s an important distinction. More often than not, Kim Jong-Il comes off as weird, to be sure, but not particularly scary.
As citizens of the world, we know that he is, but there are only a handful of moments where that really comes across here, and the most impactful one is a scene that comes right from his mouth: Actual audio captured by the two of them of Kim Jong-Il. (It is genuinely fascinating to hear his voice, by the way; until that point, I was pretty sure he sounded like Trey Parker.) It’s him talking to his kidnappees about that whole five years in prison that Shin went through. It basically amounts to an, “Oops. Sorry.” That complete disregard for a person’s existence — and of a person who was brought in to make him movies! — is kind of shocking.
And, of course it’s not all that shocking that the leader of North Flipping Korea would behave that way, but in a film that isn’t about evils, it stands out as the exception that proves the rule. We’re missing huge swaths of this story, and I’m conflicted about that. A very real part of me is glad for that, because it allows for some level of whimsy. This whole thing is so ridiculous, but it actually happened. And if you forget all of the awful things that came with it, it could totally be the plot of some weirdo comedy (possibly made by Matt Stone and Trey Parker). I liked being able to laugh and not have to constantly think about the awful things that weren’t being said… But the other part of me thinks about sort-of-humanizing dictators and demagogues, and The Lovers and the Despot does a little bit of that. Is that a bad thing? I don’t know. Probably.
But I’m not going to damn it for that. It’s sanitized a bit so that it can play to the widest possible audience, and that is a good thing, because everyone should see this movie. Everyone should learn more about this story. This story is truly incredible. Like, seriously, it’s one of the craziest things I’ve ever heard, certainly the most interesting one related to cinema. And if glossing over the evils of dictatorship is what it takes to get it in front of people? Well that’s alright by me.