Over the next few weeks, our man in Melbourne, Sean W. Fallon, will be covering the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) and reviewing some of his favourite movies that he catches there.
Overview: A documentary about Kim Jung-il’s kidnapping Shin Sang-ok and Choi Eun-hee. Magnolia Pictures; 2016; Not Rated; 98 minutes.
Opening Rant: If you don’t know the story of Shin Sang-ok and Choi Eun-hee and their 8 year imprisonment in North Korea that stands behind The Lovers and the Despot, it is for a very simple reason: They’re Korean. If this was a white director and actress kidnapped in the 70s by North Korea then we would probably would have already seen the movie version with George Clooney and Julia Roberts sweep the Oscars. Or maybe the issue is there is no white character in this story. There is no dashing CIA operative who engineers their release or white doctor privy in to the inner workings of a foreign system a la The Last King of Scotland. No, this is a Korean story about movies, fame, and the actions of a spoilt little boy whose daddy gave him a country.
The Lovers: Shin Sang-ok was a director of movies in Korea in the 1960s. the documentary paints him as a wildcard within the usual South Korean system. He made big budget movies on loans he didn’t pay back and, though loved by the public, was constantly in debt and spurned by the studios. Choi Eun-hee was a leading lady and award winner beloved by the public for her beauty and acting. Together, they were a South Korean cinema power couple until Shin found a younger actress and the marriage fell apart. The Lovers and the Despot tells their story.
The Despot: Kim Jong-il was born to rule North Korea. Spoilt and isolated he grew up in the shadow of his father, the Dear Leader, Kim Il-Sung, the country’s ruler. One of Kim Jong-il’s main passions was movies. By all accounts he had all of his homes built with screening rooms and was a vivacious consumer of cinema from around the world, which is documented in The Lovers and the Despot. This is a subject that Audiences Everywhere has touched on before and provides the motive for what happens in this documentary. In order for Kim Jong-il to elevate North Korean cinema he would need the most talented filmmakers. And if he couldn’t find them in North Korea, he would take them from elsewhere.
To make his movies he wants a great director and his favourite is Shin Sang-ok. Rather than asking the director to do it, or offering him a staggering amount of money, he decides to kidnap Shin’s ex-wife and when Shin goes looking for her, kidnap him too. Once he has them in North Korea, he’ll put them to work making movies and put North Korean cinema on the map.
The Two of Them Together: Filled with interviews with Choi, her and Shin’s children, intelligence officers involved in the case, movie critics, and Kim Jong-il’s former Poet laurate, the movie is also interspersed with clips from Choi and Shin’s movies (some from both Koreas), which help to underline why exactly Kim Jong-il wanted them so badly. It is fascinating and funny, and occasionally quite spooky, especially in the recordings of Kim Jong-Il’s voice and the scenes of organised grief upon the death of Kim Il-sung. It is easy to fall into the trap of laughing at the weird and wacky world of North Korea, but sometimes we need to remind ourselves that 20 million people live under the yolk of men who believe they are gods, and for whom making movies is more important that feeding their people.
Overall: The Lovers and the Despot is wonderful, a film that makes Kim Jong-il a laughable character but also keeps in the fore the fact that his despotism is the reason that North Korea is the vast gulag it is today.
Featured Image: Magnolia Pictures