Documentary Review: “The Lovers and the Despot” (2016) ★★★★


If you think you know everything about the rivalry between North and South Korea, with all due respect to you, I should say it is not the complete truth. There is the communist country that lives beyond absurd reality and hopes to improve its film industry to show to the rest of the world, including South Korea, how great they are at filmmaking. For that, they did not have to pour more money into budget, but kidnap a famous filmmaker to make what they could not do by themselves… Funny or tragic, it’s up to you to decide… But to forget the battle between the Lovers and the Despot is what you will find hard to neglect.

Kim Jong-il is tired of watching the North Korean films where its characters cry all day long. In the end, they all have to lose their life for the Great Leader. Obsessed with films and the idea to showcase the “freedom” and “the creative minds” North Korea has, the North Korean dictator orders the kidnapping of a young and ambitious Sourt Korean Filmmaker,  Shin San-Ok and his, at that time, ex-wife and famous actress Choi Eun-hee. Living every day in a fear and thinking the very next day can be their last – the biggest surprise comes when Kim Jong-il comes with a proposal the South Korean found hard to refuse…

In Ross Adam and Robert Cannan’s The Lovers and the Despot the story unfolds like in an old-fashioned film noir where you try to figure out who is the good and who is the bad guy. Of course, who can be worse than Kim Jong-il, however, South Korea believes that its Shin and Choe who are the ones who betrayed the country. But as the story comes out from Choi, telling the camera how she was shivering or even afraid for her safety while being in North Korea, she however resists as much as possible not to be brainwashed the way the whole country had been.

But the interesting part of this story is not only how the filmmaker or the actress were kidnapped, but their true love story that was able to survive after the struggles and the hardships they had to go through, while satisfying Kim Jong-il’s need to improve the North Korean films. The film, even in the beginning, reveals that the marriage between Shin and Choi ended due to adultery of the former, however, as soon as Shin finds out about Choi missing, he could not rest until he locates her in North Korea, after five long years.

Ross Adam and Robert Cannan bring to life a fascinating story of two individuals who became the victim of an obsessed mind. As you hear the story told by Choi and Shin’s son, Shin Jeong-Kyun, the filmmakers use an excellent collection of archival Asian films that supports every single part of the story being told by the documentary subjects. It’s almost like you watch the film with, perhaps, predicted ending, but filled with nail-biting plot and unprecedented and illogical human act, which I must say was beyond belief.


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