This eye-opening doc tells the story of a glamorous South Korean filmmaking couple – actress Choi Eun-hee and director Shin Sang-ok – who disappeared in 1978 only to re-emerge in communist North Korea as well-resourced and pampered filmmakers close to leader-in-waiting Kim Jong Il.
The makers of ‘The Lover and the Despot’ do a slick and entertaining job of telling the pair’s too-good-to-be-true tale through a mix of new interviews, reconstructions, archive footage and clever use of clips from Shin’s own films. A now-elderly Choi appears as an interviewee throughout, along with her children, although Shin remains something of an enigma – partly because he died in 2006, but also because it’s never entirely clear whether he was kidnapped by the North Koreans or went willingly.
The film’s biggest coup is access to tapes of conversations between Shin and Kim Jong Il – recordings that reveal Kim’s determination to use the couple to promote the reputation of North Korea abroad and to produce decent films that were a cut above the usual one-note ideological propaganda. ‘The Lovers and the Despot’ is compelling as a Cold War-era thriller, but it also offers a small window on life in the higher echelons of power in North Korea at that time.