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The Lovers and the Despot

September 23, 2016
The Lovers and the Despot

Giant monster movies are a universal classic. The best known series has to be Godzilla, and the many so-called “kaiju” movies that Toho produced in its wake gave the genre its most popular fandom name. In retrospect, King Kong fits into the same style, and Hollywood continues to make movies like Cloverfield and Pacific Rim. And there were any number of giant lizard movies from other countries, like Britain’s Gorgo and Denmark’s Reptilicus. But understandably less well-known is Pulgasari, a 1985 kaiju movie from North Korea, of all places. And the story behind the movie is weirder still.

While at the time Kim Il-sung was still nominally in power as the President of North Korea — and, for what it’s worth, remains the “Eternal President” after his death — his son, Kim Jong-il was consolidating his own power. Even before the younger Kim was named his father’s successor in 1980 he wanted to improve his nation’s cultural image, particularly through its film industry. And so he did what any spoiled brat does when he wants something: he stole it.

In The Lovers and the Despot, directors Ross Adam and Robert Cannan tell the story of South Korean director Shin Sang-ok and his wife, actress Choi Eun-hee. They met near the start of their careers, and married just after the end of the Korean War. During the 1960s, Shin directed almost fifty movies, and Choi starred in many of them. But as the South Korean film industry endured stricter censorship and government oversight in the 1970s, their careers petered out. An affair led to their divorce in 1976.

Then, in 1978, Choi disappeared. Shin fell under suspicion, so when he received word that someone in Hong Kong knew where Choi was, he jumped at the chance for a meeting. And then he too dropped out of sight. It was years later that anyone found out that both of them had been abducted by agents of North Korea, acting on the orders of Kim Jong-il himself.

The two were kept in captivity for five years. Shin was held as you might expect for a political prisoner, but Choi was under something closer to house arrest, and even accompanied Kim Jong-il to a range of cultural events. And then in 1983 they were released — kind of — nudged into remarriage, and into making more movies for the North Korean cinema.

Adam and Cannan have assembled a great lineup of talking heads to discuss this whole story, from Shin and Choi’s son, to American and Korean foreign service officials, to film critics who knew Shin’s work, to Choi herself (Shin, unfortunately, died in 2006). To keep things interesting, the events are illustrated with appropriate clips from Shin’s vast body of work.

But for all we see of those movies, we hear almost nothing about them. It’s clear that Shin was a prolific director, and that he was highly regarded in the earlier phase of his career, but from a cinephile’s perspective there’s little about his style, or themes, or anything of real substance. In focusing on the facts of Shin and Choi’s capture and eventual escape, The Lovers and the Despot whistles past the movies that were the whole reason Kim Jong-il had them kidnapped in the first place.

And it really does undercut what this documentary could have been. Supposedly Shin was told that he could make whatever films he wanted with no interference from the North Korean government — a better deal than South Korea was offering at the time — but is that really true? Even if nobody was explicitly telling Shin what to do, he must have known what would keep his captors happy.

Pulgasari, as one example, is shot through with Juche ideology. It’s an allegory of a people oppressed by feudalism, who find liberation through industrialization, but end up creating a monster that can only be put down through the collective action of the people. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the North Korean government’s self-image, and it’s available on the internet if you know where to look.

The Lovers and the Despot is another such glimpse into the notoriously secretive regime. It’s less fanciful and entertaining than a giant monster movie, but it’s not controlled by the regime itself. It may not stand the test of time, but when it comes to understanding North Korea we have to take what we can get.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: if it applies to documentaries, fail.

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