Between a number of exposés in recent years and, of course, the high-profile release of The Interview at the close of 2015, it feels in some ways that North Korea is as dominant in the entertainment consciousness as it is the news cycle. That being the case then, the timing couldn’t be more perfect for documentarians Ross Adam and Robert Cannan’s project – The Lovers & The Despot – to arrive in UK cinemas with its own distinctive tale of abduction and obsession in the early years of heir apparent Kim Jong-Il’s dictatorial rule.
Kim, as is famously known, was something of an obsessive of world cinema; but what’s less widely known is that his obsession would eventually manifest itself in an act of international kidnapping. Abducting South Korean director Shin Sang-Ok and star Chin Eun-hee – also a divorced couple – Kim set about utilising his hostages to establish his own North Korean film industry, an industry the pair used to exercise a level of creative freedom ill-afforded them in your homeland and in which they remained until their dramatic escape from DPRK operatives during a trip to Vienna in 1986, following a staggering eight years as captives.
Though known to some, the story of Shin and Choi’s abduction is one that’s never been portrayed in any mainstream context – something which piqued the interest of the relative newcomers behind The Lovers & The Despot. “We were asking ‘where’s that documentary?’ and ‘where’s that fiction film on that subject? It’s a great story, where is it?’” Adam reveals, “and so we decided to pursue this thing.” “That’s why we didn’t act on it sooner,” Cannan adds, “we thought ‘it’s an amazing story; either it’s not true, or the rights must be tied up in some way. It was only when we were bouncing ideas that we thought we should at least investigate further and find out why there isn’t a film about this.”
And investigate the pair did with admirable thoroughness, so much so that The Lovers & The Despot frequently features archival materials that defy belief as regards the secretive nature of the DPRK. “There’s always detective work in a story like this,” Adam offers; Cannan revealing that the source of a large amount of the integral footage came by way of interviews with a Japanese film critic. “He just had this dusty old film can, a promotional reel with the trailer for the first film [Shin and Choi] made in North Korea. We scanned it and found it was the only existing footage of them behind the scenes in North Korea – it made us wonder how much more there was out there.”
Directing a total of seven films during his time in the fortified Republic, Shin’s work would make up an attempt by Kim – actually credited as executive producer on each – to move the country onto the stage of World Cinema, with perhaps the best known of these 1985’s Godzilla knock-off Pulgasari. Watching these films however naturally comes with an all-encompassing context in light of the story behind the scenes, with Adam admitting that disassociating them from said context met with great difficulty. “We don’t think they’re of great quality,” he confesses, “even though Shin believed that one or two were actually his best films – we preferred his South Korean films – but there is something fascinating about them. They’re not overt propaganda, they’re a little bit more free; Shin decided to make period films in order to escape the propaganda that he’d be forced to make if he did more contemporary work, but there is a limit in terms of his artistic freedom.”
With North Korea as much of a hotbed topic as it is nowadays, the pair naturally faced a creative dilemma in the development of the film – chiefly in telling Shin and Cho’s tale without it becoming overshadowed by “just another North Korea story”. Cannan swiftly downplays this by revealing that they consider the dictator to be just as integral a focus of the story as his victims, explaining “It’s about Kim Jong-Il as well, because North Korea is so tied up in the cult of personality of Kim Jong-Il, his personality is imprinted on the state. In that way, we are still telling a story about North Korea, but it is still a film about character.” “We felt that there have been plenty of documentaries about North Korea,” Adam clarifies; “but we had these tape recordings and a first-hand witness who’d spent five years with this dictator. We had these conversations, and no one else had heard his voice – that’s what we had unique to any other film.
Said tape recordings – smuggled out of North Korea by Shin and Choi – form an intriguing narrative device in the film, with the candid words of a dictator whose voice is most commonly mimicked in the style of Team America: World Police’s iconic parody above all else. “What was unique as regards any dictator is that there aren’t many secret recordings of them spouting their strange views, it’s very uncommon,” Adam explains. “Especially one that didn’t talk in public,” Cannan notes; “most dictators love talking in public!” “We got private rumination,” Adam injects, “he was very free and easy with his captors. I guess because they were his toys and everyone else was born in fear, they knew they had to submit to his authority. He knew they wouldn’t give him truthful opinions, but he could get truthful opinions from Shin and Choi.
“Shin was surprisingly candid,” he continues, “and put himself up as an equal, even though he knew the power of Kim Jong-Il. Kim Jong-Il in some ways looked up to Shin, he was a sort of frustrated artist and he was aware that Shin had made it up from nothing, so there’s a bit of admiration in this strange relationship.” It’s a relationship largely conveyed through the restrictive medium of subtitling, but Cannan recalls that their translators were able to infer more of this meaning over the course of their work. “In the way that Kim talks to Shin, he talks to him with a reverence of a fan and with the respect of him being the biggest Korean director. When they’re talking, there is this sort of very subtle power game going on between them, and they’re getting closer and closer but you know that there’s this shifting power balance and you’re not quite sure who’s trying to get one up on who.”
With a story as extreme as that of Shin and Choi’s ordeal, credibility often comes into question. As far as the directors go however, neither initially went into the project with a predetermined position. “When you first hear the story, it seems so fantastical that it’s hard to believe that it could all be true,” Cannan admits, “and as you learn more about Shin being a skilled storyteller and all of the suspicious circumstances surrounding their disappearance – it creates doubt. But for us, the best bit of evidence was the tapes, we had lots of hearsay as to why it was thought he’d defected, but there was no proof we found to say that.”
“It’s a film about storytellers,” Adam offers, “so there is a question of how much Choi can be believed – she is an actress by profession and she’s used to recounting this story – so I think that’s part of the fun of the documentary, trying to figure it out for yourself. Shin, from early on, all he wanted to do was make movies and master storytelling, then he’s kidnapping by this state that’s built on the myth of personality and so it’s really hard to work out how people’s motivations are real and how much they’re exaggerating the story. I think that’s just a natural but intriguing aspect of the film, but we have to embrace the ambiguities.”
The Lovers & The Despot is in cinemas from Friday, September 23rd; rated PG. Check out our review here and the trailer below.