The film biz brims with wild stories but few are more far out than the tale of South Korean actress Choi Eun-hee and director Shin Sang-ok as told in “The Lovers and the Despot.” The married couple were the Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton of South Korean cinema, a glamorous couple, who like Liz and Dick, fell a part and the reunited, not by divorce and rekindled love, but by a dictator.
Dubbed the “Prince of Korean Cinema,” Shin was a prolific auteur but a terrible businessman. “He had huge dreams that his studio would be as big as Hollywood,” says his adopted daughter Myung-kim, but a series of flops left creditors pounding on the door. Money troubles and infidelity drove a wedge between the two and soon they divorced.
Meanwhile in the North leader Kim Jong-il wasn’t happy about the state of his country’s film industry. “We don’t have any films that get into film festivals,” he complains on secretly recorded tapes. “But in South Korea they have better technology. They are like college students. We are just in nursery school. I’ve looked at South Korean films. I asked my advisor, who’s the best director in the South? He said that his name is Shin. How could we persuade him to come here? How could I lure this director Shin?”
Turns out the “Dear Leader” was a huge film buff. With a fondness for films like “The Forty First,” a pulpy romance about a female Red Army sniper and an officer of the White Army, he had projection rooms in every one of his houses. “All of our films have crying scenes,” he said. “This isn’t a funeral. Is it?”
To up his country’s artistic game in 1978 the despot ordered Choi and Shin abducted. Choi was enticed to Hong Kong to discuss a film role with reps of the Golden Tripod Film Co. who turned out to be North Korean operatives. Four days later she was face to face with he new boss. “Thanks for coming,” he said. “I am Kim Jong.”
Shin’s road was longer and rougher. A suspect in the disappearance of Choi, he swore he would find out what happened, but ended up spending four years in North Korean detention centres before being reunited with his ex. “Kim laughed out loud,” Choi remembers, “like a triumphant general. Comrades let me introduce you. This is Director Shin, our new film advisor. This is Miss Choi, Mother of Korea.”
For the years that followed the couple remained in the North, made 17 films, enjoyed the generosity of their host, but all the while plotted their escape. “There’s acting for films,” Choi says. “And there’s acting for life.”
Fact is frequently stranger than fiction and the story of “The Lovers and the Despot,” as told by Choi, age 89, sounds like the plot of an unpublished John le Carré novel or perhaps a wild Seth Rogen movie idea. Its equal parts thrilling and absurd.
English documentary filmmakers Robert Cannan and Ross Adam use a linear approach to laying out the convoluted story. Their main asset is the first hand recollections of Choi—Shin passed away in 2006—and the remembrances of their kids. Using those interviews, the secret Kim recordings, archival footage and recreations they piece together a compelling thriller; a portrait of freedom, love and creativity in the face of totalitarianism.