Chalk this up as one of the most bizarre of documentaries. It is a fascinating account involving kidnapping, making movies under a North Korean dictator, a demand for asylum and also a love story. Some skepticism may be in order as to what part of the saga might not be the whole truth. “The Lovers and the Despot,” directed by Rob Cannan and Ross Adam, could play as a strange story of fiction, but this is a case in which the truth may be stranger than any fiction that might be concocted.
In the 1950s in post-war South Korea, actress Choi Eun-hee and director Shin Sang-ok fell in love. In North Korea during the 1970s the late dictator Kim Jong-il became a film fan and envisioned boosting his country’s image. Enamored with Choi Eun-hee, the ruler had her kidnapped from Hong Kong by agents and brought to North Korea. He then also had the director kidnapped. Both subsequently achieved stature under Kim’s rule as his personal filmmaker and star.
But subsequently, the two managed to flee in 1986 to Vienna and seek asylum at the U. S. Embassy and then attempt to resume their careers. The story is told with film clips, and also with an interview with Choi, who is still alive. Shin died in 2006. There are also staged scenes to build the drama. The viewer is left to filter out the real from the created. More than that, one can speculate on how much was involuntary and how much may have been cooperation with Kim for the benefits to be found under his control and what actually led to the director and actress deciding to flee.
Whatever the facts, what happened makes a colorful yarn, and it is especially interesting to see actress Choi giving her recollections, as she is quite a lively piece of work. We also get a glimpse at life in North Korea via certain assembled film clips. A Magnolia Pictures release. Reviewed September 23, 2016.