(Sundance Film Festival)
Shin Sang-ok was living the filmmaker’s dream: He had infinite resources, creative control of his movies, and was working side-by-side with the mother of his children. There was only one problem: He was a hostage of the brutal North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.
Just over a year after the uproar over The Interview, Seth Rogen’s goofy satire about foreigners infiltrating the North Korean dictatorship, a new documentary that premiered at Sundance tells the very real story of two people who survived an even closer encounter in Pyongyang. The saga of Shin Sang-ok and Choi Eun-hee, also recently detailed in a book by Paul Fischer, is brought to life in The Lovers and the Despot from directors Ross Adam and Robert Cannan, with the help of photos, interviews, re-enactments, and secretly taped conversations featuring Kim Jong-il.
In its opening chapter, the film sets the context for what is not only a bizarre international kidnapping caper, but also a love story: Shin, one of South Korea’s leading filmmakers, and Choi, an equally famous actress, were the Brangelina of the ‘60s, a glitzy power couple that lived and worked together (they even adopted two children). His affair with a younger actress led to their divorce in 1975, but their connection was still strong enough that, when Choi went missing in 1978 during a visit to Hong Kong, Shin went looking for her.
It turns out that Kim Jong-il, who was then operating as the heir-apparent to his father, Supreme Leader Kim il-sung, had lured the pair into a trap. After having been abducted and kept prisoner for five years — Choi was stowed away in Kim’s various palaces, Shin was abused in dank and dirty prisons after attempting escape — the two were reunited in 1983 by Kim Jong-il after their “re-education” was deemed complete. Kim was an obsessive film fan, with a vast library of movies from around the world; think of him as Quentin Tarantino crossed with insolent baby Hitler. His motivation for the kidnapping was shockingly simple: Kim was desperate for Shin to help him reshape North Korea’s laughable cinematic output.
The nature of Kim and Shin’s partnership — though unquestionably a forced one — is one of the most unlikely aspects of this very unlikely story.
A Kim Jong-il Production, the lengthy book by Fischer, fills in a lot of the blanks left by the time constraints of a 100-minute documentary. What Adam and Cannan hint at — and Fischer explains more fully — is that Kim knew deep down that North Korea urgently needed to project a new image to the world. Of course, the damage to its international credentials were entirely self-inflicted by the all-powerful Communist Party, which brainwashed, starved, and jailed its own people as its leaders gorged on international aid and drug money. But Kim was loath to give up his opulent lifestyle (including his 24 vacation villas) or status as a living deity, so he turned to film as a way to repair his country’s image.
Kim was in charge of North Korea’s cultural exports, and was willing to admit in private that its films, which were largely repetitive propaganda pieces, were drab and lacked any sort of artistic merit (his confession, caught on tape, is detailed at length in the book). This frustrated him, and not just because he thought the films failed to inspire the masses. As a dedicated cineaste, Kim was just as dedicated to making art as he was propaganda. Not only that, but he greatly admired Shin’s work so he promised Shin both creative freedom to explore any topic — within reason, of course — and provided budgets larger than Shin had ever seen.
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And money, Kim knew, was a major issue for his prized director; though hugely successful in the ‘50s and ‘60s, Shin’s studio hemorrhaged cash in the politically restrictive 1970s and was even shut down by South Korea’s own hard-line leader, Gen. Park Chung-hee As such, while Shin mostly worked to please Kim (and thus win the freedom of movement that could enable: he and Choi to escape), he took some pleasure in the work, too.
And so, after spending years in financial dire straits and unable to produce a single film, Shin suddenly found himself working non-stop. He was like a slave being forced to do what he loved most, with more creative freedom than he had felt in years. It was a bizarre position to be in, and years later, some in South Korea still didn’t believe his story. Shin died in 2006, but Choi’s interviews in the documentary make clear that, regardless of their cinematic opportunities, all their time in North Korea was strictly involuntary.
Shin and Choi wound up making seven films for Kim in just over two years of forced labor; they often visited different studios in the Eastern Bloc to make use of their facilities. As Fischer details, some of those movies were well-received even outside of North Korea, with Choi winning Best Actress at the Moscow Film Festival for the film Salt. The most famous of their movies, Pulgasari, was a Godzilla knockoff, which finally screened for the world in 1998 and was released on VHS in 2001.
Ross and Cannan’s documentary doesn’t dwell much on Shin and Choi’s output, understandable given the lack of footage available; instead, documentary’s filmmakers focus on the international headlines that accompanied Shin and Choi’s sensational story, as well as the various plans of escape they hatched as they traveled between North Korea and Prague, Hungary, and Turkey. It’s an international thriller, more bizarre than any Mission: Impossible, stranger than The Interview, and, if it didn’t come with the risk of a debilitating email hack, would likely be the subject of a feature film very soon.