North Korea is known for many things: a repressive government, widespread starvation, cults of personality, and general insanity. What it’s not known for is its film scene — a celluloid history that would rival anything by the Russian or French masters. At least, such was Kim Jong-Il’s hope when he abducted famed South Korean director Shin Sang-ok and his wife, actress Choi Eun-hee, with the intent of forcing the two to make North Korean films to rival those that he had seen from outside the regime.
For eight years, five of which were spent imprisoned, the husband and wife team were held as hostages by Kim Jong-Il. Though they were afforded luxuries tantamount to their status as Kim’s prized possessions, they nevertheless feared for their lives and longed for a return home, where their two children were growing up thinking that their parents had defected to North Korea, leaving them behind.
The story of The Lovers and the Despot is one of perseverance. The two lovers, initially driven apart by an extramarital affair, come together under terrible circumstances, surviving éunder a brutal, terrifying ruler. In the process, they rediscover their love for each other. As a fiction film, such a plot seems outlandish and cliché. The Lovers and the Despot is not a fiction film.
In the wake of events like the alleged North Korean Sony hack — which was motivated by the release of the controversial comedy film The Interview, where James Franco and Seth Rogen kill Kim Jong-Un — The Lovers and the Despot seems almost normal. After all, threatening terrorist action in the wake of a satirical film isn’t the most logical or democratic response, but it’s what the world has come to expect from a nation run by a line of tyrants, fiercely protective of its image, which is built more upon propaganda than anything concrete.
To view North Korea as an image-based society is the most honest way to look at the country, and it’s precisely that insight that The Lovers and the Despot helps to develop. Through surreptitiously recorded audio from Choi Eun-hee (who hid a tape recorder in her purse), the outside world hears the voice of Kim Jong-Il. It’s a small voice, wavering and unbalanced, but as Kim rants about North Korea’s terrible film output, we begin to understand that this is the voice of an authoritarian tyrant.
The Lovers and the Despot tells a compelling story while at the same time revealing the depths to which the Kim family would sink to hold onto their image of strength, prosperity, and genius. In a particularly telling moment, Kim Jong-Il shows the two filmmakers a Soviet film as inspiration. The following scene expands on the real intentions: Kim was showing them a film that ended with a death as a way to remind them what fate awaits the couple if they displease him. Even with threats, Kim communicated through the medium of the image.
Under such duress, the films made during this period in Shin’s life included Runaway, a period piece set in ’20s Manchuria (a film Shin later said was his finest work), Love, Love, my Love (supposedly the first on-screen kiss in North Korean film history), and Pulgasari, a notoriously bad Godzilla ripoff that has recently found minor fame on the internet.
Told through interviews, Choi’s audio tapes, and rare footage of North Korea, the film offers audiences an engaging story set in the secretive state. The film has a tendency to drag, however. It lacks probing commentary, it never feels like it’s gathered as much data from the subjects as it could have. Although the story is told well, the audience is left the task of conceptualizing the film within the greater context of North Korean society. One wonders what the addition of more academic or political interviewees would have done to expand the story of the film beyond its borders. As it stands, The Lovers and the Despot is quite the tale, but it stops — and ends — when the story does.