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Kim Jong-il Productions: Ross Adam and Robert Cannan on a Tyrant’s Love of Cinema in The Lovers and the Despot

Kim Jong-il Productions: Ross Adam and Robert Cannan on a Tyrant’s Love of Cinema in The Lovers and the Despot


MM: One of the most important ideas the film demonstrates is the cultural importance of film, which is such that even a dictatorship like North Korea wants to be part of the film conversation, and knows the importance of cultural representation through film.

RA: Sure, yeah. It’s kind of common knowledge that a lot of, if not most 20th Century dictators have had some kind of interest in film, because they recognize the power that cinema can have over our hearts and minds, and many have used it. But Kim Jong-il took that to a whole new level, and he was interested not just in the propaganda potential of film, but also using film to enhance North Korea’s image on the world stage. Aside from sports, that really became a huge focus for him. And we love the fact that we have two male characters who are obsessed with film, completely obsessed in different ways, but a meeting of minds in that way. That’s kind of why they got on so well; they shared the same obsession. In this specific circumstance, between North and South Korea, there is a permanent armistice, so since they couldn’t fight with conventional weapons, they had to compete with alternative means, and film was another of those means. We just loved the idea that, we love cinema too, and to come across a story in which there’s a kind of war being fought over cinema; it’s just extraordinary.

MM: Had you ever seen a North Korean film before being so deeply involved in this subject? Their isolation informs their art.

RA: There have been one or two films, before Shin and Choi were taken to North Korea that got out into the outside world. There was one called The Flower Girl, and was one of Kim Jong-il’s early producing efforts, and was directed by the person who was kind of Kim’s right hand man and Minister of Culture & Film. That was one of, if not the only North Korean films that got into an International Film Festival. There had been just this little bit of international success, which gave Kim Jong-il the hope that it was something he could build on, and that was clearly in his mind when he had Shin brought over. He thought, well if I get the best director from South Korea, then we can really expand our film industry and get films into film festivals around the world. And he was thinking beyond the communist world. He wanted to impress the Soviet Union, but he also wanted these films to get into the big festivals in the west; he wanted them to be playing at Cannes and Berlin and Venice, and to be breaking the western markets.

MM: From what perceived through the making of this film, would you there was an element of Stockholm syndrome involved, or was it all pretend? Was Shin ever happy to have all the resources, and to work there and be able to make all these lavish films? I understand there is no way to know for certain but what’s your take?

RA: I think we have more of an impression from Choi of Stockholm Syndrome. You hear in the film her talking quite positively about Kim Jong-il. We were surprised in the interview that she was resistant to say anything to critical of him. At first we thought maybe it was out of fear of retribution. When we interviewed her, it was a few years before he died, but the more we spoke to her, the more it actually seemed there was an identifying with him, and a sense of guilt for betraying him, or at least what she saw as betraying him. With Shin, our feeling was that, he’s very single minded in terms of getting what he wants, and he learned how to play the game. One of the things we found fascinating in the tapes is that both he and Kim are very headstrong, and quite manipulative, and you’re never really quite sure who’s manipulating who, or if they both are, and to what extant they’re aware of it, and they’re just playing the game. And you have to remember that Shin, who always wanted to make films, found himself in North Korea, which is not a place you can escape from very easily, and he’s got all the resources he could ever want to make films, and in a very private environment with Kim Jong-il, I think certainly there could be an element of Stockholm Syndrome. But it could easily be just him being very attracted to his sudden powerful position, and also knowing he didn’t really have much of a chance to escape from where he found himself. You here Shin in the recordings talking out loud about how this guy had given him everything he wanted, in filmmaking terms, and they got on. It was a meeting of minds, to a certain degree. I’m not saying Shin is monstrous in the way that Kim Jong-il was, but they loved filmmaking, and maybe some aspects of their personality meant that they just got on.

Choi Eun-hee in The Lovers and the Despot.

MM: Assuming that Kim didn’t really have anyone else to talk about film with, perhaps it was good for him to have a friend to talk withas outrageous as that might sound.

RA: That’s a really good point, and the sense we get from Choi, and from Shin as well, is that Kim Jong-il was surrounded by “yes men,” who had to go along with what he said. So in some ways, Shin and Choi became confidants for him, because they were from the outside world, and he could talk to them in a way that he possibly couldn’t talk to some of his closest advisors. So that was a particularly unusual relationship, in terms of whom Kim could talk to.

MM: Another aspect of the film is the relationship between Shin and Choi. They had divorced before this happened, and then they stayed together until the end of his life after enduring this ordeal, which says something about how this incident rekindled their love for each other. What’s your perception of that relationship marked by such a strange chain of events?

RC: It’s hard to know if Shin and Choi would have gotten back together had it not been for the intervention of Kim Jong-il. No one can say for sure, so in that way you can say, yes, he made that happen. But I’m sure that was not his main intention. There is a part of the story where he kind of stage-manages their reunion, but there is an aspect to Shin and Choi that, as much as they hated each other, they loved each other just as much, and even after their divorce, they remained friends, and a sustained relationship. I’m not a romanticist in this way, but I think there was a certain level of fate involved in them getting back together, and she has a forceful personality, and Kim Jong-il as well. Choi would certainly say it was fate, and that her and Shin turned out to be destined to be together. I think even their son, he said they were like magnets; they could repel each other, but the attraction was irresistible, because they needed each other, and when they weren’t together, they lacked the power. They made a great team, and even when Choi was acting less later in life, they still worked closely together, and they needed each other creatively. They couldn’t help being together.

MM: Talk about the collaboration between the two of you as co-directors. What’s your division of labor?

RC: With all of the logistical difficulties of this film, of dealing with the archives, and not having a huge amount of money to deal with, in truth we would have appreciated even more people to help out. We were filling more roles than just for two. But between us, we were on the same page at all points. We knew the story we wanted to tell. It was just pretty easy to divide labor between us.

MM: What would you do if you found yourselves in the positions of Choi and Shin as artists, taken by a regime and forced to make films?

RC: It’s a difficult question. I think in the West there’s a level of complacency, and in the East you say, “Of course I would resist. I would not make films for such a regime.” But until you are in that situation, you do not know what you would do. I would want to escape like Shin and Choi. However pleasantly treated and what luxuries you might have, there’s no place like home, and I don’t think that’s a place I could live in, in good conscience. I would definitely make films, definitely make films, but at the same time I would looking for a way to escape.

RA: Obviously, there’s the question about how complicit they were with Kim Jong-il and his regime. Particularly for South Koreans today, this is a huge issue, and I’m sure the South Korean audience will be really focused on that when they watch the film, trying to decide how complicit they were. But Shin and Choi had the perfect excuse, which is that their only hope to escape was by building trust with Kim and making the films successful and getting a chance to go abroad for productions and film festivals. In that sense they had the perfect excuse. They had to be complicit to have any chance of escaping. Whether or not that’s the truth, that’s another question, but it’s certainly the perfect excuse. MM

The Lovers and the Despot opened in theaters September 23, 2016, courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

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