Tuesday, September 27, 2016


The Lovers and the Despot Movie Review

The Lovers and the Despot is one of those documentaries where the subject is far more interesting than the resulting movie. One would think that the tale of a major political figure who kidnaps an actress and her director husband to help his country’s flagging film industry would be riveting and filled with intrigue and drama. And it is, sort of. But it’s told in such a dreamy manner that one starts to doze off. It's a gentle, sleeping pill of a documentary. Then again, some stories are so bizarre that they can overcome almost any flaw in execution.
The movie, written and directed by Ross Adam and Robert Cannan, sifts through a mountain of material to tell the story of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il, who happened to be a movie lover, and his abduction of Choi Eun-hee, a woman who, for lack of a better comparison, was the South Korean Meryl Streep. She’d starred in several films for her husband, Shin Sang-ok, a major figure in the South Korean film business. We see the two at various red carpet events, and in clips of the movies they made. They were a cool couple, hobnobbing with Marilyn Monroe and looking incredibly stylish in their dark glasses; they were the epitome of 1950s South Korean swank. When Choi vanished, Shin followed. He, too, was taken into captivity. The dictator gave Shin an incredible opportunity: massive resources were his to make any sort of movie, provided it showed North Korea in a positive light. Not surprisingly, Shin grew to like the idea. After a couple of escape attempts, he understood that working for Kim Jong-Il wasn’t such a bad gig. Shin and Choi remained in North Korea for eight years, and made eight features.
There are some artful flourishes in the movie, and we get a fairly complete impression of the couple in captivity. She’s elegant, an actress who seems to come alive while working, but otherwise is rather meek and unassuming; he’s got enough swagger for two, squinting his eyes like Bob Mitchum after taking a drag off a Marlboro. We learn that Shin was a bit of a bum when it came to finances, which could explain why he enjoyed working for Kim Jong-Il, and we hear the dictator’s voice on tape, complaining about the sorry state of his country’s films. “Why so much crying?” he asks. I especially liked the South Korean intelligence agent involved in the case. He was tough but light, like an old weed that had survived several hard winters. He deserved his own television series.
Shin and Choi were already done as a married couple by the time they were relocated to North Korea – he’d had an affair with a lesser known actress that resulted in two children, which was, apparently, enough for Choi to get the message. “He never said he loved me,” Choi says at one point. Later, she adds, “He loved me more than people knew.” The pair was reunited while in captivity. This turned out to be what they’d needed to rekindle the old flame; they would stay together until Shin’s death in 2006, 20 years after making their daring escape from the clutches of Kim Jong-Il.
All of this should’ve been twice as romantic, and  twice as dramatic. I should’ve been weeping when they were reunited, I should’ve applauded wildly when they made their getaway, and I should’ve been hating Kim Jong-Il. Instead, Choi plays everything too quietly, as if she's still worn out by the eight years she spent in North Korea. And Kim Jong-Il, strangely enough, comes off as the star of the piece. He’s oddly charismatic. Trying to break the ice when he first meets Choi, he says “Don’t I look like a midget’s turd?”
As for Shin, aside from his dashing demeanor, we don’t get to know him very well. We certainly don’t learn much about his films. Clips are used throughout the documentary, but we can’t gather what sort of filmmaker he’d been in his South Korean heyday. He seemed to bounce from period pieces where Choi did evocative fan dances, to movies that looked like Korean versions of  spaghetti westerns. His black and white footage looks lovely, like clips from a Fellini movie, and I also liked the color footage from a later film – it reminded me of Bunny Yeager’s “stereo photography” of the ‘50s. Still, I couldn’t tell you shit about Shin as a director. Not from this documentary, anyway.
What comes across in the movie is that North Korea is a strange place, emotionally stunted until it’s time for a military parade or a dictator's funeral. Then, the tone becomes something akin to the Nuremburg rallies, with enough pomp and glitter to frighten anyone looking in for the first time. Was this, I wonder, the goal of the filmmakers? When we see footage of Kim Jong-Il’s 2011 funeral procession, with the loyal citizens practically apoplectic with emotion - obviously forced - it feels like we’re looking at another sort of propaganda film, one to make us think North Koreans are simply crazy. What does the average person know of North Korea? Not much. But, thanks to our media coverage, and constant mention of nuclear missiles, we’re supposed to be scared of the place. And this documentary, with its use of certain images, appears to be saying it’s OK to be scared.
A final shot of Kim Jong-un, the tubby son of Kim Jong-Il and the current leader of North Korea,  is meant to be ominous, like the pics of Adolph Hitler that pop up at the end of World War One documentaries, a note that something grim is yet to come. Hmm? I’ve heard that North Korea wants to enter the space race. Maybe they’ll kidnap Buzz Aldrin for some inspiration.


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