Leonard Cohen: Bird on a Wire
Palmer's film is that rare concert doc that isn't for established fans only.
A frustrating missed opportunity, "The Lovers and the Despot" takes a fascinating story about filmmaking, politics, kidnapping and propaganda and gives us almost no insight into the work of its two main characters, a director and his actress wife. Their personalities come through loud and clear, but the artistic and political context in which their amazing story occurred barely gets illuminated—a particular shame given that North and South Korean cinema and politics are subjects than many Americans know almost nothing about, save for the vague oversimplifications they might have overheard on the news on the rare occasions when US media outlets deign to cover that part of the world.
Written and directed by Ross Adam and Robert Cannan, the film marshals a staggering array of material to tell us about one of the strangest stories in international film history. In 1978, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il, the titular despot and also a movie buff, decided that North Korean films were boring and resolved to import top talent from the South, which made superior motion pictures. So he kidnapped Choi Eun-hee, wife and sometime leading lady of producer-director Shin Sang-ok, a giant of South Korean cinema in the 1950s and '60s, and used her as bait to lure the actress' husband to Hong Kong, where he, too, was kidnapped. The couple was then forcibly relocated to Korea, where the dictator gave Shin nearly unlimited resources to make any kinds of films he wanted as long as they portrayed North Korea, mortal enemy of Shin's home country, in a favorable light. It's an astonishing tale that either illustrates the realities of Stockholm Syndrome or the moral cravenness of artists whose values can easily be compromised by a powerful person writing them a fat check.
There are many more fascinating details in this story, and the filmmakers flesh out the personal parts of it via newspaper clippings, TV news snippets, abstract footage that might or might not be recreations (the movie is pretty coy about that stuff) and interviews with most of the main participants and many side players; the latter includes a sit-down with a South Korean intelligence agent involved in the case, as well as a conversation with Shin's brother Choi Kyung-Ok, who describes his sibling as an artist who was aces with actors and camera equipment but a disaster as a businessman. Shin's company, Shin Films, made over 300 movies but collapsed anyway due to mismanagement. "Shin had zero talent for running a company, zero," his brother says.
By the time the North Korean government engineered the forced relocation of Shin and Choi, the pair were already kaput as a couple, having divorced after Shin had two children with a younger actress. They spent eight years in North Korea and made eight films there before plotting a daring escape to the west in 1986. Their arrival is captured in TV news footage that opens the movie; the rest of their story is structured as an extended flashback, building toward to their escape in the manner of a heist film or "Argo."