The Lovers and the Despot

The Lovers and the DespotSynopsis: The Lovers and the Despot tells the story of young, ambitious South Korean filmmaker Shin Sang-ok and actress Choi Eun-hee, who met and fell in love in 1950s post-war Korea. In the 70s, after reaching the top of Korean society following a string of successful films, Choi was kidnapped in Hong Kong by North Korean agents and taken to meet Kim Jong-il. While searching for Choi, Shin also was kidnapped, and following five years of imprisonment, the couple was reunited by the movie-obsessed Kim, who declared them his personal filmmakers. Choi and Shin planned their escape, but not before producing 17 feature films for the dictator and gaining his trust in the process.


The Lovers and the Despot 7.25

eyelights: its political intrigue.
eyesores: its unwarranted length. its sketchy details.

In 1978, Shin Sang-ok and Choi Eun-hee, two legends of South Korean cinema, mysteriously disappeared. Years later, they reappeared in North Korea and, though the pair had previously divorced, and were no longer making films together, they suddenly churned out seventeen motion pictures in just a few short years for dictator Kim Jong-Il.

The world was stunned by their return.

‘The Lovers and the Despot’ is a 2016 documentary recounting the facts of Shin and Choi’s mysterious disappearance and subsequent involvement with the world’s least likely film producer. It features current interviews with the people involved in the case, including Choi, as well as archival footage and past audio recordings of Shin and Kim Jong-Il.

It’s quite the tale.

Though their story seems vaguely familiar, and I’m sure I’d heard of it before, I knew very little about Shin and Choi’s abduction. Unfortunately, ‘The Lovers and the Despot’ didn’t go deep enough to paint a complete portrait, touching on main points but not really expanding on them – it doesn’t do a significantly better job than a Wiki page.

For instance, in light of the questions raised about the facts at hand (ex: a British agent admits to immediately finding something amiss with Shin, but then never elaborates on it.), there is never any clear idea of what people truly think happened. Was Shin actually kidnapped? Or was it all a set-up? Could Shin have been involved in Choi’s abduction?

Who knows…

All we know is that, for years, the pair claimed to have defected from South Korea willingly – until they eventually absconded to a U.S. embassy in 1986. But it’s suggested here that Shin enjoyed finally working with unlimited budgets, and that Choi didn’t mind her new life since it provided her with additional glamour and fame.

So why defect, then?

Though it’s likely that at least one of them was kidnapped for real, could they have been brainwashed while they were incarcerated during those first few years? Could they have actually turned and become North Korean agents? Could it be that the whole scenario was contrived, that their “escape” was facilitated by North Korean authorities?


The couple brought as evidence recordings of their discussions with Kim Jong-Il that they made on a small portable tape recorder. But, given that they were under constant scrutiny, how did they get the tape recorder and their unlimited supply of tapes? How did they keep them hidden? And how did they smuggle all those tapes abroad?

And what happened to their children? While the two siblings are interviewed, we aren’t told of the impact that their parents’ disappearance had on them. I mean, the son speaks about suddenly being alone, but it’s never established who took care of them, what became of them, and if they were reunited with their parents once they escaped.

It’s just one of the picture’s many big gaps.

Also confusing matters slightly was the filmmakers’ use of selected footage from Shin’s films in concert with the events being discussed – along with archival footage, and what appeared to be reenactments of some events with actor Paul Courtenay Hyu as Shin. It was impossible to distinguish reality from fact, which I found frustrating.

But perhaps that was the point all along. Perhaps the filmmakers were not just unveiling a true-to-life intrigue, but were also highlighting its inscrutability. Perhaps they made this editorial choice precisely to blur the lines and raise questions about the truth of the matter. Either that, or they were excessively careless in its construction.

Well, that’s certainly a possibility…

Their judgement comes into question at the end, when they make a point of telling us how evil Kim Jong-Il was and how his evil is still perpetuated by his evil son to this evil day. It seemed a little heavy-handed, if not propagandist, for a movie that should really have been about Shin and Choi – or at least the perplexing nature of their kidnapping.

In any event, ‘The Lovers and the Despot’ tells a fascinating story. It’s too bad that the documentary fills up its time with inconsequential or redundant material instead of investigating the matter properly. Given what’s offered here, one gets the impression that the story could have easily been told more concisely, in a 30-minute short doc format.

And yet… there are so many questions that remain unanswered.

Date of viewing: October 4, 2016

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