Arts movie review

Kidnapping, Korean film, and Kim Jong Il take center stage in gripping documentary

The Lovers and the Despot delivers a truly bizarre must-see true-crime thriller

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Shin Sang-Ok, Kim Jong-Il, and Choi Eun-Hee in THE LOVERS AND THE DESPOT, a Magnolia Pictures release.
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures


The Lovers and the Despot

Directed by Rob Cannan and Ross Adams

Not Rated

Now Playing

North Korea is a black box that always seems to be lurking in the news with headlines that range from the shocking to the downright bizarre. The Lovers and the Despot, directed by Rob Cannan and Ross Adams, straddles both the shocking and the bizarre as this documentary unpacks the compelling true-crime story of Kim Jong-Il’s kidnapping of famed South Korean actress Choi Eun-Hee and her ex-husband, the accomplished South Korean director/producer Shin Sang-Ok.

Covering events that took place over 30 years ago in the media-adverse North Korea, this documentary relies primarily on the narration of present-day interviews to drive the story and on photographs, old film footage, and stylized reenactments to revitalize it on film. Perhaps the most captivating element that Cannan and Adams have to offer are the recordings of conversations held with Kim Jong-Il himself that the captives Choi and Shin were able to capture by hiding voice recorders on themselves. Their high risks had high rewards. Hearing the dictator speak in his own voice is an intriguing prospect and as one interviewee mentions, an uncommon occurrence. Audiences are granted clearly captioned access to these recordings in addition to an intriguing insight into the mannerisms, off-beat humor, and intent of this enigmatic figure. In what is perhaps the most memorable and bizarrely hilarious line of the film, Kim refers to himself as being as “small as a midget’s turd.

Cannan and Adams set the stage for this international caper by introducing the first two-thirds of the titular trio, Choi and Shin, as the Lovers. Despite a successful partnership in the South Korean film industry and an apparently happy start to their marriage, Choi and Shin ultimately part ways and divorce after Shin fathers two children with another woman. Much of this relationship is detailed from the personal perspective of Choi, but it is only after this expository narrative is established that the thrilling ride truly begins.

The film does not break new ground with its musical score, but instead treads the familiar yet highly effective path of subtle and slowly building sound that utilizes both crisp silences and eerie static for full dramatic effect. It is in this soundscape that we first learn of Choi’s disappearance from a Hong Kong hotel and are catapulted into the world of shady boat kidnappings, fights, imprisonment, and escape attempts. Twists and revelations are dropped so frequently and abruptly that, while highly entertaining, it all borders on the absurd — a sentiment which is only amplified once it is revealed that Kim has kidnapped these South Korean film industry juggernauts for the sole purpose of making great North Korean films. A self-proclaimed artiste who complains about the overabundance of “crying scenes” in Korean film, Kim hopes to demonstrate that North Korea is also capable of great art. And to some extent he succeeds, with Shin and Choi crafting a prolific number of inventive films while in captivity.

Though the documentary begins with the broken relationship between Choi and Shin, once it plunges into the drama of intrigue, oppression, and escape, it does not return to it, rendering the film as two disjointed halves and leaving the viewer wondering what, if any, significance the relationship had. The two could have been strangers and the story might have been just as functional. Equally confusing is the director’s use of film footage from old Korean films in conjunction with reenactments of key events in the story. While this is not inherently confounding, it is the unusually similar visual style that these two share that makes it difficult for viewers to distinguish between the two. One could argue that the directors are commentating on what one interviewee describes as the blurring of films with real life. But regardless of intent, this and other choices, such as only flashing the names of interviewees once before they speak, despite the wide collection of characters that can be hard to keep track of, muddle the flow of the viewing experience.

The film serves less as a political commentary or opinion piece about the highly contentious subject of North Korean government and international action, and more as a transfixing thriller that happens to be grounded in reality. Though the film does an adequate job with pacing, visuals, and of obtaining interviews from relevant characters, it does not set itself apart as anything more than a vehicle for a truly compelling real-life narrative. Despite these shortcomings and a very sub-title heavy narration which might deter viewers, the film demands to be seen, if not for its thrilling story, then at the very least for the strangely intimate peek it provides into North Korea and its infamous despot, Kim Jong-Il.