History has repeatedly shown that tyrants are often some of the most avid art collectors and supporters, despite the dark motivations behind their appreciation.
Propaganda films are a tested tactic that consciously tap into the power of imagery to convey value systems, and can cleverly, albeit deceitfully, shape a country’s public image. With this purpose in mind, the late supreme leader of North Korea Kim Jong-il formulated a plan to kidnap two of South Korea’s most prominent film figures, director Shin Sang-ok and actress Choi Eun-hee, in 1978 in an effort to revitalize the North Korean film industry and create productions worthy of international acclaim.
This outlandish true-life tale is retraced in Ross Adam and Robert Cannan’s documentary The Lovers and the Despot, which depicts the former dictator as a deranged movie fan willing to use his power to satisfy his artistic ambition for the country, as well as the two victims whose relationship was rekindled through the devastating ordeal. A cinematic love triangle of sorts with undertones of Stockholm syndrome, Adam and Cannon’s film offers a glimpse into Shin and Choi’s creativity under the looming threat of death, and why the leader of the most isolated regime in the world was so fascinated with the art of the cinema.
MovieMaker spoke with the co-directors about getting access to the materials displayed throughout The Lovers and the Despot, their views on Kim Jong-il’s relationship with his captives, and on humanizing a monster without condoning his actions.
Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Given the secretive nature of North Korea, how were you able to develop your interest in this story into a feature?
Ross Adam (RA): Robert and I are longtime friends and we wanted to make a film together. We learned about this story ages ago and we both thought someone must have made this into a film. We did a bit of investigation and found that there’s no film out there, no news piece, nothing major. We thought, “This is a film about a filmmaker struggling to make films who gets abducted, and would make an incredible story. Let’s just try to contact Choi Eun-hee.” From there it snowballed, we managed to get her on our side and pretty soon we were making the film.
MM: Did Choi guide you to the images and the tapes you used? How difficult was the process of obtaining access to this material that hadn’t been seen or heard by most of the public before?
RA: It took a very long time. Shin was no longer alive but Choi and her family—her son and the people working for Shin films in particular—were so protective and wary about the story, because it’s still so contentious in South Korea. So obviously they were very protective of their archives, of the films and everything else that they had. One example of really important archives in the film are their conversations with Kim Jong-il. We read an excerpt of the transcript of their very first meeting with Kim Jong-il, which we knew was key evidence used to prove their innocence to the CIA and was their ticket into America, but what they didn’t reveal for a very long time, until very late in the process, was that they had hours of further recordings of various meetings and conversations with Kim Jong-il. They hadn’t really anticipated that we might want to use those throughout the film. That was like striking gold, because that was what was missing, a way into the moment, and particularly into Shin and Kim’s characters.
MM: Talk about blending these findings with footage to tell a cohesive story. Did they also provide the clips and photos you used to assemble the film?
Robert Cannan (RC): Some of it was re-enactments that we shot. There are some specific moments in the story, there are kidnappings and escapes, and they made a lot of films, so we kind of knew early on that there would be things in the films which would stand in for and represent parts of the story. But we also needed certain aspects of the story that had to be in there, because they’re dramatic moments but too specific to be in their films, so we’d have to re-enact them. We decided to shoot them on Super 8mm so they would fit somewhere in between the period archives that you see in the film and the movie clips. Luckily for us, Shin and Choi bravely smuggled out the films that they made, and the photographs shown in the film, as well as the secret tape recordings. You hear in the film about the Japanese friends that they had, so at various times they managed to pass packages. And even when they escaped, they had some of the materials with them.
MM: Were you ever wary of making a film so charged with North Korean political context? It’s the story of two people at the core, but politics inevitably play a crucial role in the narrative.
RC: We were concerned because of how serious it is in South Korea to be accused of complicity with North Korea and Kim Jong-il. Of course our aim as filmmakers is to find the truth and to engage people cinematically but to really tell an impartial story. We knew we had to tell both sides of the kidnapping story, including the people who discount it as well. So that was one aspect that did worry us for a bit, but ultimately we don’t think there have been any repercussions for our film.
MM: Did you feel you had to humanize Kim Jong-il in order not to present him as one-dimensional? In the film, through the voice recordings, he comes across as strangely human.
RC: Well, it’s very easy to poke fun of him or make caricature of him, like in Team America or something, and that’s how most people know of him. It would be a disservice to caricature Kim Jong-il. It’s easy to say, “He’s a monster,” or “He’s not a human being.” Of course he’s a monster, but he is also a human, and we try to show that side as well.