‘The Lovers and the Despot’ Gives Viewers a Window Into Kim Jong-il’s Madness

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The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), commonly known as North Korea, is neither democratic nor a republic. It is the most oppressive regime in modern history. The late writer Christopher Hitchens once joked that Kim Il-sung picked up a copy of George Orwell’s 1984 and remarked, “It just might work.” What started with Kim Il-sung and was passed down to Kim Jong-il to Kim Jong-un, the North Korean regime has ruled over its people with an iron fist, with nothing prioritized over complete subservience to the state and its depraved rulers. The Hermit Kingdom has prized secrecy of its inner workings for decades, and each glimpse behind the 38th parallel reveals a mixture of pure horror and insanity that the general reaction lies somewhere between disgust and dark humor.

One of the more darkly comic crimes perpetrated by the DPRK is when Kim Jong-il kidnapped South Korean filmmaker Shin Sang-ok and his ex-wife, actress Choi Eun-hee, forcing them to make movies for the mad dictator. Their story is the subject of the new documentary The Lovers and the Despot from the directing duo of Ross Adam and Robert Cannan, which tells this insane story with rare insights into the madness of Kim Jong-il. However, The Lovers and the Despot leaves certain angles to the story untold, which can make for a frustrating experience.

Shin Sang-ok was a prolific filmmaker in South Korea starting in the late ‘50s. After meeting Choi Eun-hee on set, the two were married and eventually adopted two children. Shin created his own studio, Shin Films, which eventually would cause a number of financial problems for the filmmaker and his family. In the late ‘70s, Shin and Choi divorced, as Shin found himself infatuated with another young actress. Meanwhile in North Korea, Kim Jong-il is slowly assuming power from his father Kim Il-sung. The cinephile dictator is growing more and more dissatisfied with the stagnation of the regime’s cinematic output. The despot devises a scheme to lure to Shin to the North Korea, starting by kidnapping Choi as she visits Hong Kong. As Shin goes to Hong Kong searching for clues as to Choi’s whereabouts, he is kidnapped by North Korean spies. Over their eight years in captivity, both Choi and Shin are forced to go through cruel forms of indoctrination and are forced to make movies for the dictator of the DPRK.

Having passed away in 2006, Shin Sang-ok doesn’t appear in the movie aside from archival footage. Much of the harrowing experience is told by Choi Eun-hee, candidly explaining the events leading up to their kidnapping as well as life behind the 38th parallel. Their children are also interviewed, painting a heartbreaking portrait of two children who fear that their parents may have turned their back on them and South Korea. It was commonly believed that Choi and Shin voluntarily traveled to North Korea, though, of course, anything positive they had to say about the oppressive regime was made under duress.

Undoubtedly the most fascinating aspect of The Lovers and the Despot are the secret audio tapes that Choi and Shin recorded of Kim Jong-il. They paint a unique portrait of Kim Jong-il’s madness, and provided the crucial evidence that Choi and Shin were kidnapped. The mad dictator speaks with such a casual insanity, blaming his subordinates for failing to kidnap Shin with the proper care. Never one to speak in public, these tapes provide the most definitive evidence as to the demented personality of the North Korean dictator.

There are a number of frustrating aspects of The Lovers and the Despot. First of all, the film makes no mention of Kim Jong-il’s widely reported obsession with cinema, an obsession that obviously inspired the madman to kidnap Choi and Shin. Secondly, the film features a number of reenactment featuring a purposefully degraded image to replicate a grainy film stock. It’s quite distracting and dilutes the real life horror story that unfolds before our eyes. Finally, the filmmakers seem to take a rather easy approach on Kim Jong-il’s father Kim Il-Sung. At the film’s conclusion they state that conditions in the country worsened after the son ascended to the throne, understating the paranoid cult of personality that was fostered under Kim Il-sung which would lead his son to even further extremes.

The Lovers and the Despot focuses on the victims of Kim Jong-il’s madness. It’s a good documentary that only feels slightly disappointing because the story is just so bizarre it should be great. Despite its few flaws, The Lovers and the Despot takes its viewers behind the crazy world of North Korea and into the mind of one of history’s greatest monsters. It’s only fitting that the medium that Kim Jong-il was so obsessed with would be employed to show the world a window into his depraved madness.

The Lovers and the Despot
  • Overall Score

The Verdict

Not always the most in depth documentary, The Lovers and the Despot still works because of its crazy story and ability to allow viewers to peer into the demented mind of Kim Jong-il.

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