The love story of South Korean filmmaker Shin Sang-ok and actress Choi Eun-hee reads like an international espionage novel that you might find in the spin-rack of a used book store. It seems invented, improbable, and unbelievable, but even fiction - by way of imagination - can provide insight into lives and experiences that are worlds apart from our own frame of reference. However, THE LOVERS AND THE DESPOT is far from fiction; the gripping tale that surrounds - defines! - this documentary is no paperback yarn, but a horrific true-to-life account.
Co-Directors Ross Adam and Robert Cannan's conventional, talking head documentary chronicles the separate kidnappings of the filmmaker and actress couple by North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il, where following years of torture, interrogation, and imprisonment the two are reunited and tasked with the absurd chore of being North Korea's (and the supreme leader's) personal filmmaking team. In order to survive, and preserve hope of escape, together Shin Sang-ok and Choi Eun-hee made seventeen feature films for the obsessive leader-cum-cinephile.
The story is undeniably chilling, especially owed to the stern-faced accounts of former government agents and informants who lend colorful, declassified anecdotes to the overall story. In particular, the appearance of noted film advocate and programmer Pierre Rissient - who has been a fixture in virtually every film scene worldwide for the past fifty years - is a pleasant reminder of his influence, mentorship, and ever-present good nature within film. Most of all, a particularly creative gesture on the part of the directors is the inclusion of carefully selected scenes spanning Shin Sang-ok's filmography to illuminate particularly harrowing sections of the story for which there is otherwise no photographic evidence or archival sound recording. In the most beautiful way, the scenes from Shin Sang-ok's films - although removed from their individual narrative context and often left unclarified as to where the segment originates - broadly illustrate the story being told. A creative solution to a potentially significant problem - wanting to tell a story, but not being able to visually represent the intrigue - this device also avoids the possible exhaustion that can result from simply listing, then showing one film after another as a kind of checklist.
Albeit somewhat conventional in terms of its formal documentary qualifications, THE LOVER AND THE DESPOT relates a gripping, important, and treacherous tale that employs some memorably crafty ingenuity in its telling.
- Samuel B. Prime
Founder, LA Ciné Salon