Movie review: The Lovers & The Despot a bizarre thriller

Documentary tells how a South Korean movie star and a director were kidnapped by North Korea’s autocratic leader to help kick start his nation’s film industry

The Lovers & the Despot


Featuring: Choi Eun-hee, Shin Sang-ok


Directed by: Ross Adam & Robert Cannan


Rating: 3 stars out of 5


Running time: 98 minutes


(In English and Korean with English subtitles)


By Jay Stone


On May 15, 1986, two luminaries from the South Korean film industry appeared at a Washington, D.C., press conference with a bizarre story to tell.


Choi Eun-hee, a beautiful actress who had appeared in a series of popular movies — historic epics, love stories, lush and overheated musicals — said that in July, 1978, she was summoned to Hong Kong to hear an idea for a new film. While she was waiting for the producer, she was abducted by four large men who drugged her and threw her into a cargo ship where she was kept for eight days without food. She emerged in North Korea, to be greeted by the unhinged dictator Kim Jung-Il with the words, “Thanks for coming.” He treated her well, she said, but she was kept a prisoner in a country house for years, tending a garden and wondering what she was doing there.


It turned out that she was bait. Shin Sang-ok — her ex-husband and the most successful movie director in Korea — was searching for his missing former wife when he too was abducted by North Koreans. Through a mix-up that Kim later blamed on his staff, Shin was imprisoned and tortured for four years before he was released and brought to the president’s office. There he was told that he and Choi were there to kick start the North Korean film industry. Kim, whose madness extended to a love of cinema, wanted good movies, films that would rival the best in the world.


“Why do all our films have the same ideological plots,?” Kim asked in a secret tape recording made by Choi and Shin. “We don’t have any films that get into film festivals.”


This strange story — a combination of political thriller and the misbegotten plans of a madman to make it in showbiz — is told in The Lovers & The Despot, a documentary that can’t quite live up to its outlandish premise although, to be fair, what could? Directed by British filmmakers Robert Cannan and Ross Adam, it comes wrapped in much of the same enigmatic, half-glimpsed oddities that envelop North Korea itself.


Most of it is told by Choi (Shin died in 2006), who eventually fled to the United States and is filmed sitting in a chair and talking about the past. Some of her story is illustrated by old Korean films or, somewhat more surreally, by some of the movies that she and Shin were forced to make: 17 of them in 15 months, during which time she says they slept only a few hours a night. They included a Godzilla knockoff and a version of Titanic with an all-Korean cast. None ever made it to a film festival. Buy effexor online


Other parts of the story involve re-creations that, frankly, look as schmaltzy as something Kim might have ordered up: an actress portraying Choi lying on the floor of a cargo ship, for instance, waiting to be delivered to her fate, or scenes showing Shin being locked in a North Korean prison. His story is even more fantastical — he says he was inspired by the classic war movie The Great Escape to flee from the prison, but he was recaptured — and rumors still exist that Shin went to North Korea voluntarily to take advantage of what was essentially a limitless budget. Film directors can be a bit unhinged themselves when it comes to raising money. Buy elavil online


There are several other talking heads, including film critics who met Shin and Choi on trips to Europe — they were allowed out of North Korea occasionally, accompanied by bodyguards — and many scenes of Kim talking about his vision for a North Korean cinema, illustrated by a close-up of an old microcassette tape recorder slowly turning. Buy desyrel online


It never quite adds up, but that’s North Korea for you. The Lovers & The Despot calls on the audience to put much of the mystery into some kind of psychological order; meanwhile, scenes of mobs worshipping their Dear Leader, or thousands celebrating his majesty in mad unison, provide a fascinating portrait of this sad nation and its deluded ruler. Kim died in 1994, his Hollywood dreams unfulfilled. North Korea struggles on.


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Review The Lovers & The Despot a bizarre thriller

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The Lovers & The Despot: A documentary (including some historical re-creations) about a bizarre moment in movie history, when a South Korean movie star and her ex-husband, the country's top director, were kidnapped by North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il. It was part of a mad plot to establish an award-winning movie industry in the cloistered nation, a failed plan whose weirdness is never quite matched by this talking-heads film. 3 stars out of 5 _ Jay Stone

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