The incredible true story of "The Lovers and the Despot": “Until North Korea collapses and we get access to the files, we’ll never know for sure”

Salon talks to documentarians about the actor and filmmaker kidnapped by Kim Jong-il to make propaganda films

Published September 23, 2016 5:28PM (EDT)

Shin Sang-ok, Kim Jong-il, and Choi Eun-hee in "The Lovers and the Despot" (Magnolia Pictures)
Shin Sang-ok, Kim Jong-il, and Choi Eun-hee in "The Lovers and the Despot" (Magnolia Pictures)

The lovers in the new documentary, “The Lovers and the Despot,” are South Korean actress Choi Eun-hee and her husband, filmmaker Shin Sang-ok. The despot is Former Supreme Leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-il. Directors Robert Cannan and Ross Adam have used secretly recorded tapes of Kim Jong-il as well as interviews with Choi Eun-hee to recount the remarkable story of how in 1978, the lovers were independently kidnapped by Jong-il and forced to make films — they completed 17 features in 2 years — to improve North Korea’s cinematic output.

The documentary addresses brainwashing, escape attempts, loyalty, trust, and betrayal as well as other intrigues, culminating in the big question: Was Shin’s kidnap story real?

Salon spoke with the filmmakers about the fascinating true story of “The Lovers and the Despot.”

How did you discover this story, meet Choi, and learn of the tapes she recorded of Kim Jong-il?

Rob: Neither of us can remember what we read, but we came across this story individually, and we had it in the back of our minds that this semi-mythical story was true and it was amazing that no one had done something on it. So when we met we thought we should do something. It was never really covered in the West, so we decided to track down Choi and try to get the rights. We read that this tape recording existed and it was used as evidence to clear their names when Shin and Choi were debriefed by the CIA. But we did didn’t know about how many hours of recordings there were.

There’s a line in the film, “When put in extreme situations, people imitate what they see in movies. If I was going to make a movie about this situation, how would I film it?” Can you talk about your approach to recounting this story, with recreations, interviews, audio and film clips?

Rob: I’m glad you picked up that line. Choi colors her language with cinematic terms. It justifies reconstructing certain parts of the story and telling their story with clips from Choi and Shin’s movies. When we watched the films, male protagonists are filmic embodiments of Shin’s imagination and how he sees himself in the characters. When we came across that line, Shin is clarifying this idea of how we wanted to tell the story. How would I film it?

Ross: We always knew there was a heightened element to the story, about two filmmakers and a state built on propaganda. How do we balance the melodrama with the reality? It was a tricky balancing act. I can’t point to one way to engage people and make it as cinematic as possible and both emotionally and authentic as possibly.

Are many of the Shin and Choi films — either from their heyday in South Korea, or the 17 films they made together in North Korea during their two years of detainment — available? You show clips of their work together, most notably the first North Korean love story. People may want to see their films after watching “The Lovers and the Despot.”

Rob: It’s good you want to see them. “Pulgasari,” the Godzilla rip-off, had a small release in the States and the whole film is on YouTube and available on VHS on Amazon. But that’s the only one released in the West. The other films are in the Korean archive in Seoul, and no one can see them. We got copies of the Digibeta tapes.

Ross: The North Korean films may be in the Ministry of Reunification in Seoul. That sounds Orwellian, doesn’t it? They are not widely available. We got them because Shin and Choi smuggled them out.

Rob: We had to clear the rights with Shin and Choi to use the clips we did. If people are interested in them, they would have to ask Shin films.

Why do you think Shin was such as desirable filmmaker for Kim Jong-il’s purposes that the Supreme Leader would “lure and persuade” him (and kidnap Choi) to come to North Korea? Could it have been because of his financial difficulties and/or his marital troubles that he was vulnerable?

Ross I don’t think Kim Jong-Il would have many sensitivities to the situation of a director he wanted at the time. He’d just go get him. It colors Shin’s motivations about why he might defect to North Korea. But Kim Jong-Il valued Shin and Choi as the premiere filmmaking couple. He liked their work and was a big fan.

Rob: It’s possible that Kim had spies in the South Korean film industry. He had all of Shin and Choi’s films much to their surprise when they got there. He even had prints of films Shin though were lost. There was some idea that Choi was used as bait.

There is a question about whether Shin’s kidnapping actually occurred. Why do you think people doubt his story?

Rob: It seems too convenient that he had fallen out with South Korean government and had gone bankrupt. He owed creditors. It seems convenient he is on the side of the enemy and able to make films again.

Do you believe that?

Rob: [Laughs.] We approached the story as open-minded as possible. We had heard a lot of people insisting it wasn’t true and a lot of South Koreans today believe it’s not true. There’s healthy skepticism. But getting our hands on the tapes swung it in Shin’s favor. We wanted to let that moment play out for audience to make their own minds up. Maybe people will come up with their own conspiracy theories. There is room to believe Shin exaggerated the details of his kidnap. Maybe he felt he had to try to sensationalize it because it could have been that he was coerced to go. We don’t have proof, only hearsay. We still think there’s mystery in the story. It’s certainly not conclusive. Until North Korea collapses and we get access to the files, we’ll never know for sure.

Choi says that there was “nothing of me left,” and talks about resisting the brainwashing that was tried on her. How do you think she found the strength to survive this ordeal?

Ross: Part of this is due to the fact that her hardships pre-existed in this story. In the Korean War, she had been raped — it’s in her book — but she built a career. Even in her formative year she experienced hard times. She got very despondent. Her fortitude? Maybe it comes from her acting ability and sense of performance. Maybe that got her through.

Rob: There is this Korean term, “Han,” which means endurance. In their history, Koreans were put upon by the Japanese and the Chinese and they endure through strength and character. In the 1950s, Choi embodied that strength [on screen] and Korean’s loved that because it spoke to the deep sense of what being Korean is all about. She was like that in real life.

You have an interesting panel of talking heads, from David Straub, who was a U.S. Department of State Foreign Service Officer to film critics Pierre Rissient and Derek Malcolm. How did you find people who knew this story?

Ross: We had researchers. Sometimes it happened fortuitously, and sometimes we posted things on forums, which turned up people who knew the story. We interviewed a CIA agent we can’t name, and when we sent transcripts to the CIA it came back massively redacted — like a Rothko painting. Michael Yi, who was a classified intelligence officer, covered much of material and he is in the film. The case is still classified, so we had to track down now-retired CIA officials.

Do you fear any backlash for recounting a story about North Korea, one where King Jong-il is not seen in the best light, even though you do talk about sympathy for him given his unusual childhood?

Rob: That’s a good point. We hope we’re not being as directly affective as “The Interview” was. Our film is not about the current leader. And we used real archives and use his voice and it’s not all negative. We hope they are too busy with their nuclear experiments to worry about this film.

Ross: I think they have bigger fish to fry. We’re not on the scale of a Hollywood blockbuster so we’re probably not on their radar, unless Kim Jong-un is concerned about our depiction of his father. We’re not inviting provocation.

Rob: Maybe it would be good publicity for us if we were to go missing the day before the release….

By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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Documentary Film Kim Jong-il Movies North Korea The Lovers And The Despot