Review: ‘THE LOVERS AND THE DESPOT’ has the makings of a madcap dark comedy – only it’s a true-life tale

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

THE LOVERS AND THE DESPOT | 1h 38min | NR
Directed by: Ross AdamRobert Cannan

The logline for directors Rob Cannan and Ross Adam’s riveting documentary THE LOVERS AND THE DESPOT sounds like a darkly comedic fictional madcap caper; a recently-divorced pair of filmmakers is abducted and forced to work together again in order to please a foreign dictator. You can practically see the trailer playing in your head right now, no? I could. However, this insanely catchy hook is actually the utterly chilling, harrowing affair of what happened when two very real filmmakers – South Korean actress Choi Eun-hee and her director husband Shin Sang-ok – were kidnapped by oppressive North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. Not only does the documentary play out like any intense thriller of this era, it’s also surprisingly a bit of a love story.

This couple’s testimony is almost too much to be believed – and yet here we are, totally engrossed by their terrifying adventure. The pair met and fell in love in the 1950’s in post-war Korea. Both were ambitious in their crafts – he in writing, directing and producing films and she starring in them. But as the years ticked by (and two children later), they fell out of love and divorced. Unlike most couples, however, that’s not the end of their story, but rather a re-booted beginning. In 1978, their world gets turned upside down once again when Choi is kidnapped in Hong Kong – by Kim, North Korea’s ruler intent on making his country a glittery beacon in the film world. While tirelessly searching for Choi, Shin is also taken and imprisoned by the obsessed despot. After five years of imprisonment, both were given a modicum of freedom by Kim – ironically the creative freedom to produce seventeen films.

It’s been months since I’ve watched this documentary and it’s clung to me. It’s one of the best documentaries of the year. While the hardships these two must’ve endured in the days since capture (and even release) are soul-quaking, what’s really resonant is the pure love Choi and Shin had for each other – something the doc subtly brings to light. The fact they had the ability to recognize this too is incomprehensible, and yet here they are, defying the odds again. It might help to lend some perspective to your own marriages; if these two can survive being interned together, your marriage can survive the row that ensues after one of you forgets to put out the bins.

Choi Eun-hee, Kim Jong-il, Shin Sang-ok photo from THE LOVERS AND THE DESPOT courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Choi Eun-hee, Kim Jong-il, Shin Sang-ok photo from THE LOVERS AND THE DESPOT courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

The film asks all the good investigative questions: how could something like this happen? What happened before Kim brought them together again? What possessed them to risk sure death, recording their eye-opening conversations with Kim? And so on and so on. Glints of humor shine through too. It’s hard not to laugh at the crazy reasons Kim wanted his country to be known as a filmmaking superpower (because there was too much sobbing in North Korean films) and the ludicrous lengths he goes through to attain glory. Another aspect Cannan and Adams bring to light is push-pull of the security Choi and Shin found in their creative freedom, which is, I’m sure, a seductive tool Kim utilized to his advantage. She admits loving winning awards and acclaim for her work, which possibly speaks more to her incredible fortitude to make lemonade out of lemons than anything. This was probably the only positive reason to stay versus all the negative ones. Plus, action-driven sequences are constructed in a way that feel absolutely palpable and visceral.

Reading articles and Wiki pages just won’t do this tale justice. THE LOVERS AND THE DESPOT is worth seeking out because the tale at hand is best told by the storytellers who experienced it. And if Hollywood ever turns this into an offbeat romantic dramedy, well, then I would be the first in line to see that too.

THE LOVERS AND THE DESPOT opens in select cities and on demand on September 23. Go here for where/ when to find it playing near you.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.