Editor's note: Sophia Nguyen is one of three recipients of the Sundance Institute's Roger Ebert Fellowship for Film Criticism for 2016. The scholarship meant she participated in the Indiewire | Sundance Institute Fellowship for Film Criticism, a workshop at the Sundance Film Festival for aspiring film critics started by Eric Kohn, the chief film critic and senior editor of Indiewire.
The director Shin Sang-ok once declared that his life was too unbelievable for a movie plot. Called the Orson Welles of South Korea, he’d made more than 60 movies in 20 years before the government shut his studio down in 1978; by the ‘90s, he wound up in America and at Disney, where he created the “3 Ninjas” series under the name Simon Sheen. There was also the matter of Shin’s glittery celebrity marriage to his leading lady Choi Eun-hee, and the scandalous affair that ended it. But most outlandish of all were the circumstances of their reconciliation: getting abducted by North Korean agents to make films for Kim Jong-Il.
Such a stranger-than-fiction story seemed destined for documentary—not least because Shin and Choi had a habit of viewing life events as film scenes. Yet none materialized until “The Lovers and the Despot,” premiering at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Co-director Robert Cannan said in an interview with Realscreen that though the subjects “were actually in conversations with a number of different production companies” over the years, they were protective of their story, and especially of its evidence: the audiotape, photos, and film smuggled out of North Korea when they escaped to the American embassy in Vienna. They collected this material not just so they could apply for political asylum, claimed Cannan: “they did it for a possible future film.”
The pitch writes itself: a thriller and a love story; a portrait of political and artistic megalomania; a movie about the magic of movies. But Cannan and co-director Ross Adam never make a grab for the high concept. A long interview with Choi forms the spine of the script, supplemented by conversations with their children, former collaborators, and less explicably, retired American officials. These testimonies are illustrated by excerpts from Shin’s extensive filmography, and strangely soporific reenactments of action scenes like her kidnapping by boat, his fruitless search in Hong Kong, and a climactic car chase.
A talking heads documentary can play a bit staid, especially to a Sundance crowd. But the straightforward approach keeps the directors out of the way as the tale goes from tragic melodrama to something more bizarre. On tape, Kim lays out his ambitions to elevate North Korean cinema, complaining about predictable crying scenes. “We don’t have any films that get into film festivals,” he frets to his pet artists. The threateningly affectionate executive producer put everyone in a paradoxical situation. They weren’t exactly told to break the ideological mold, but they were invited to make a new one. (Later, Shin and Choi said that they introduced the first screen kiss to the country.) Unlike in South Korea, they never had to worry about money. They received unlimited resources, and later, permission to travel to Eastern Europe. Shin and Choi put out 17 films in little more than two years.
The missed opportunities show up elsewhere. Cannan and Adam show how Choi treasures the memory of her work’s rapturous reception in Moscow, prestige and praise to a degree she’d never received. They neglect to mention that Shin made what he considered the best film of his career, “Runaway,” in North Korea (to say nothing of the cult favorite “Pulgasari”). Readily accepting Choi’s account of living in fear and biding their time, they don’t probe the psychology of this hostage situation, or the complexities of such creative coercion. Their interview with another artist, the nation’s former Poet Laureate, which at first seems merely out-of-place, turns out to be a wasted opportunity. They get a good quote about the “emotional dictatorship” of the country, and then just leave it there. The movie’s myopic fix on the thriller plot—fast-forwarding to the logistics of escape—does a disservice to their subjects’ artistry and agency.
The documentary does find the running time for an abrupt detour into the bizarre upbringing of Kim Jong-Il. It’s a perfunctory attempt to humanize the villain, who was reportedly isolated from other children and groomed for power since birth. He lacked the physical presence, charisma, and political ambition of his father. As one expert explains, he was shy and loved the cinema, and “thought of himself as an artiste.” It adds up to little more than the “frustrated creative” theory of dictators. Forget killing baby Hitler: if only someone had encouraged his painting! This tepid compassion misses the mark: what’s needed isn’t remote analysis of his psyche, but the operation of his power.
The epilogue wants to give us goosebumps and the giggles, and in doing so, shows its hand. One scene shows the mourning at Kim Jong-Il’s funeral, and explains the ominous consequences for inadequate grief. It’s followed by a clip from North Korea’s 2001 attempt to make an international blockbuster in the vein of “Titanic"—“Souls Protest,” which failed to launch beyond the country’s orbit, is shown as pathetic and hubristic; it’s also framed as funny. But the condescension is unearned. The regime’s huge public rallies and parades display a more imaginative eye, and a deeper comprehension of image and spectacle, than Cannan and Adam have: the synchronized flag-twirling and banner displays are something out of a Busby Berkeley nightmare, in living color. The shots from “Souls Protest” are mesmerizing. These flashes of footage illuminate the questions these filmmakers never bothered to ask: about the ideology underlying the desire to export art as a form of soft power; about how a government attempts to control the imagination of its people. “The Lovers and the Despot” wants to dismiss these ambitions as the delusions of a dead man, without grasping how they connect to his dynastic power.
The regime’s atrocities are so local, and its public figures so apparently weird, that no one knows whether to treat North Korea as broadly dangerous or merely doomed and demented. Only last year, threats of uncertain credibility to the United States (and to Sony), leant a ring of moral purpose to the obnoxious adolescent comedy “The Interview.” “The Lovers and the Despot” is a symptom of a continued Western bewilderment, which will only intensify amid recent speculation about possible missile tests. Given the recent examples of Adam Johnson’s novel The Orphan Master’s Son and Suki Kim’s memoir Without You, There Is No Us, we seem content to leave the serious stuff to literature. It’s Hollywood’s prerogative to render generations of Dear Leaders as 2D cartoons and literal puppets. This British documentary has no obligation to pay reparations. But it should’ve paid more attention.