Editor's Note: Brendan Lucas and I have been pals ever since grad school, an expensive mistake we both made. As a fellow degree-holding moving image archivist, Brendan spends his days working at an LA-based audio post company and abides in the film scene as a frequent moviegoer. I spoke to him earlier and he is "alive and well." In this funny and thoughtful essay, he expands on the recent documentary film THE LOVERS AND THE DESPOT (2016), which we saw together last month and which I reviewed - in brief - in an earlier post. Enjoy responsibly!
- Samuel B. Prime, Founder
In MOM AND DAD SAVE THE WORLD (1992), Jon Lovitz plays a diminutive, flamboyant extraterrestrial emperor with an interplanetary death ray who abducts Middle American earth couple Teri Garr and Jeffrey Jones in the midst of their dubious road trip to reignite their love life. For amateur North Korea-watchers like myself, the parallels between the film and real life events are obvious. In THE LOVERS AND THE DESPOT (2016), filmmakers Ross Adam and Robert Cannan explore a truly stranger-than-fiction episode in the history of North-South Korean relations: the abduction, imprisonment, and absurd demands made of Choi Eun-hee, a famous post-war South Korean film actress, and Shin Sang-ok, her estranged director-husband, by the North’s future ruler Kim Jong-Il.
In the late 1970s, a then-unknown Kim needed help in establishing a name for himself as an energetic young go-getter to win his father’s approval and cement his succession as the leader of the DPRK. At Kim’s personal request, Choi Eun-hee was kidnapped while in Hong Kong by North Korean agents and used as bait to ensnare her ex-husband so that together they might work to revitalize the North Korean film industry. As a director and producer, Shin Sang-Ok lived and breathed cinema, often in spite of very real personal costs. From racking up debts with his failing production company, to wooing a much younger actress (much to his wife’s embarrassment), his filmmaking pursuits forced him to accept a Faustian offer for a second chance at both career and marriage.
Shin, the “Prince of Korean Cinema” of the 50s and 60s, and Kim Jong-Il, the “crown prince” and eventual heir apparent of the Hermit Kingdom, are well-matched as two avid cineastes who compulsively chased celluloid glory, even as the world shrunk around them. As patron and artist, Kim and Shin developed a working relationship fostered by a mutual understanding and a shared belief in the power and influence of film. Like the chief Nazi architect Albert Speer to Kim’s Hitler, Shin harnessed the material and human resources at his disposal to realize a physical manifestation of the state’s ideology, filtered through the lens of the Kim’s over-the-top personal aesthetic. From this perspective, one can see how Shin and Kim, both considering themselves misunderstood artists, found in each other a natural ally, thus enabling them to realize their wills and dramatic fantasies through a larger-than-life cinema.
Kim Jong-Il’s notorious book-length filmmaking treatise, On The Art of Cinema, describes the objective of the film crew as the realization of the intention of the director, whose duty as “commander” is to guide the crew to nurture the main ideological, thematic, or emotional “seed” of the film to fruition — a sort of filmic Führerprinzip. Accordingly, after years of ideological re-education while in captivity, Shin was given nearly unlimited resources, with a literal army of technicians, craftspeople, and workers at his command, as well as state funding, to realize Kim’s dream of building a renowned national cinema.
This mixture of the martial and the aesthetic — of conscripted and compulsory labor for the sake of the frivolous — captures the sad logic at the heart of the North Korean experience. At once deadly serious and yet comically bizarre, the tale of Shin and Choi’s abduction is a fitting analogy for North Korean society as a whole. Held hostage by the regime, they must perform for their lives by engaging in flattery and perpetuating the fictions of a brutal system in order to survive. In North Korea, everyone must become an actor.
A persuasive negotiator, yet lacking the charismatic charm of his barnstorming guerilla father Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-Il is described as paradoxically domineering yet fundamentally shy person — unable to play with his peers as a child, as a young adult he casts himself as a frustrated aesthete, who at the same time was capable of engineering a Machiavellian seizure of state power in the world’s first hereditary father-son communist dynasty. Despite his ubiquitous visual presence in the DPRK, the younger Kim shied away from public speaking, especially live broadcast, so that even today the voice of the Dear Leader remains an absolute mystery to the majority of North Koreans. The secret recordings made by Shin and Choi of the conversations that they had with the future leader are among the most astonishing artifacts of the documentary, revealing the deal brokering and manipulation that Kim employed to establish and maintain vassal fealty in his dynastic authoritarian regime.
A central idea explored in THE LOVERS AND THE DESPOT is the blurring of the real and the cinematic. In one of the film’s most inspired moments, Shin Sang-ok describes his harrowing escape attempt from a North Korean prison early in his captivity, during which he formulates a daring escape pieced together from scenes of movies he had seen. In moments of extreme stress, Shin explains, we depend on cinema to act heroically when everyday experience leaves us paralyzed. Though frequent comparisons of Kim Jong-Il to a Bond villain may seem hyperbolic, the viewer is led to wonder how much Kim’s leadership style and approach to power was influenced by such movies, given his lifelong love of cinema. Indeed, Shin and Choi’s ordeal feels like a cross between Stephen King’s MISERY and DR. NO; TRUE LIES meets TEAM AMERICA, with a dash of John Le Carre.
By towing the aesthetic and ideological line, Shin and his wife were eventually so trusted by Kim and the regime that they were allowed to leave the country several times to promote North Korean cinema at festivals abroad before they defected to the West. However, questions surrounding Choi and Shin’s credibility emerged after their return to South Korea, and suspicion as to their motives and their complicity with the regime seems not to have dissipated. Was Shin Sang-ok’s enthusiastic collaboration with Kim Jong-Il merely opportunism, or was he really motivated by his devotion to his ex-wife? Was Shin conveniently skipping out on his debts in South Korea by collaborating with Kim’s offer of work and funding? Was he really the victim of kidnapping or did he purposefully play the politics of the North Korean system to get a second crack at his first love: filmmaking?
While it remains a crime in the Republic of Korea to praise the Democratic People’s Republic or the Kim family, Shin Sang-Ok and Choi Eun-hee’s incredible trove of photos and audio appears to corroborate their abduction story. If it were not for their urge to keep the tape recorder going, their version of events may have been impossible to believe. Using interviews, found footage of Korean genre cinema, propaganda films, convincing dramatizations and the covert audio recordings made by Shin and Choi themselves, Adam and Cannan’s documentary affords a rare glimpse at Emperor Kim’s court from behind enemy lines and behind closed doors.
- Brendan Lucas