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The Filmmaking Couple Kidnapped by Kim Jong-il to Put North Korean Cinema on the Map

We talked to the directors of 'The Lovers and the Despot' about their new documentary, which tells an unlikely tale of kidnapping, cinema, and a dictator turned cupid.
Kim Jong-il, Choi Eun-hee, and Shin Sang-ok. Photo via Magnolia Pictures

Some stories are spread for their strangeness. Take, for example, the story of famed actress Choi Eun-hee and filmmaker Shin Sang-ok, who were kidnapped in 1978 by North Korean agents of notorious dictator Kim Jong-il. It's a well-known story in Korea and serves as the subject of a 2015 book, A Kim Jong-il Production, along with coverage by NPR's This American Life and other media outlets worldwide. At the time they were abducted, Choi and Shin were divorced, and Shin had a relationship with a younger actress. Choi was kidnapped while on what she believed was a business trip to Hong Kong. Her disappearance became major news, and when Shin followed to look for her, a colleague who turned out to be a North Korean agent betrayed him. In Pyongyang, Kim Jong-il kept Choi in (relative) comfort, at his side, parading her around cocktail parties. But Shin, who tried to escape, was sent to a prison camp, tortured, and "reeducated" for four years. Once the couple were finally reunited, Kim revealed his plan: He wanted the couple to make North Korea famous for film, and he gave them a blank check to make the films they'd always wanted.


The new documentary The Lovers and the Despot, made by filmmakers Robert Cannan and Ross Adam, centers on interviews with Choi and secret tapes the couple recorded of Kim Jong-il, in which Kim implies that they were kidnapped on his orders and asks questions like why North Korean films always show someone crying. The tapes also include Shin debating escape. Dramatization of the story is provided both by grainy Super-8 reconstructions and by scenes from the couple's actual films: lush, groundbreaking works, such as the first North Korean film ever about romantic love. Cannan and Adam describe The Lovers and the Despot as a film about filmmaking and the dilemma of getting everything you ever wanted—except freedom. After nearly a decade in captivity, the couple finally made their break in 1986, during a trip to Vienna, where they managed to obtain political asylum from the US. They eventually resettled in Los Angeles, where Shin worked in Hollywood under a pseudonym before dying in 2004.

Stories like The Lovers and the Despot will always be interesting cocktail party fodder. The facts about the Kim regime only ever seem to add up to more mystery. The film presents the spectacle of both the lovers and the despot, though it falters in its exploration of the consequences of their collision. It doesn't fully turn the strangeness of what happened into the drama of how it affected Choi and Shin's lives, art, and love.


I recently spoke over the phone with Cannan and Adam to talk about their film, the power of storytelling, and the unlikely scenario of a dictator playing cupid.

Image via Magnolia Pictures

VICE: What drew you personally to this story?
Robert Cannan: It's a story about a director. Of course there are some wild tales from Hollywood, but we'd never come across anything quite this outlandish set in the world of cinema. But it was also just this Faustian story of temptation and knowing just how hard it is to make films and in particular how hard it is to finance films. It was an interesting moral question for us to ponder, like how far would you go to make films. And particularly if you buy the idea that Shin went willingly, which we were open to in the beginning.

The story I heard in Korea seemed to be about Kim Jong-il's obsession with the actress, Choi—the film seems much more focused on Shin?
Cannan: I wonder maybe if that's in particular because Choi, being an actress, is even more famous than Shin. Shin was very famous, but because she is an actress, that's the story everyone knows. It's like saying, Marilyn Monroe or Elizabeth Taylor, that time that they were kidnapped and taken to another country. So maybe that's why? We really saw it as a story about three characters. The initial hook for us was about this actress and this director, but quite quickly we realized that [Shin] had died and Choi was alive and she would be telling this story. For us it was really a triangle about these three people getting tangled up together.


How did you get the tapes?
Ross Adam: We had known that there was a taped confession, but we only knew of one initially. It was only late on in the production that we managed to get full translations of the rest of these tapes and only then did we realize that quite a lot of material between Kim and Choi was sometimes trivial business, production and minutiae, and sometimes very interesting aspects of Kim Jong-il's character and the game playing between Shin and Kim. But even more important, during that time we found a recording of Shin whispering in Japanese—covertly, while he's captured in North Korea—where he tells the whole story from beginning to end, including this moment where he's weighing up whether he should stay or go, whether he should betray Kim Jong-il, and that became a crucial part of the story.

It sounds like you're saying that part of what you were interested in was whether or not he had a willing and active part to play here?
Cannan: There are certainly times when you hear Shin on the tape where he sounds like he's a bit brainwashed, he sounds like he's becoming brainwashed, but also he was a very clever, calculating guy himself. Going back to the idea of the game, he would later claim that this was always his plan, to get close to Kim to escape. Of course that's a convenient excuse and exactly what he would say, but with Shin you could also believe that. So it's very hard for us to gauge exactly to what extent Shin was a willing participant beyond just wanting to make films there.


In the film he looked more clearly unwilling?
Adam: We always wanted to engage with the idea of these perhaps untrustworthy sources. Choi is an actress—should we trust her, is what we're seeing a performance? Kim Jong-il is of course a dictator, chief propagandist of North Korea—he cannot be trusted at all. And Shin is the master storyteller, his whole career is built around that. Through the tape recordings, our position did evolve. We present the material as objectively as we can. [The audience] must decide, but the recording of Kim Jong-il apparently confessing or at least implying that he had brought them over for these reasons and kept them prisoner is pretty clear.

Directors Robert Cannan and Ross Adam. Photos courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

At the beginning of the film, there's this very interesting love triangle set-up, which obviously can't be continued when Choi and Shin are captured. But once they're reunited, the love story seems to give way to Kim Jong-il. Was this a decision to switch the focus, or was it a decision based more on what information you had from the interviews?
Cannan: Again, it was a tricky balance to tell a story that is sort of multi-genre, in the sense that we wanted to tell a thriller, but we also wanted the romance thread in there as well. For us, it was too amazing not to have this romance element, the fact that their relationship ended in a very melodramatic way and they were reunited in a most unusual way, by a dictator playing cupid. If it wasn't for Kim Jong-il, they may never have gotten back together, and if it wasn't for Shin having gone through all of these horrific experiences in a prison camp in his attempts to find Choi, she may never have forgiven him for his past infidelities. We wanted this romantic moment where they're reunited, and then from that point they're back to where they were, perhaps in a stronger way, as this great filmmaking team. We felt that we wanted the build-up to the finale in the film to play out more like a thriller, because it is an escape sequence and it becomes an escape story from that point.


Has there been any Korean reaction to the film?
Cannan: Do you mean both North and South?

I'm assuming nobody in North Korea is going to get to watch this movie, so just the South.
Cannan: In South Korea, it's actually coming out a day before the US and the UK, so we'll find out then. Certainly it's causing quite a stir there since it's quite a controversial story. Many people still doubt Shin's story. I think it's been making primetime news on all of the major TV stations. It's gone a bit crazy out there.

What are your hopes for people to take away from the film?
Adam: It's a film about storytellers. It's a film that shows there's really a power to storytelling. Why would Kim Jong-il wish to kidnap a director in the first place? Yes, he's perhaps a very strange, peculiar individual. [But the story is also about] how film can shape hearts and minds, which is what Korea and Kim Jong-il are all about. In that way, it shows a very strange example of the importance of film. But also we want to show an aspect of the terrible beauty of North Korea. It's not just a wacky place. The film ends with people crying, and it's a very strange tone. Why are they crying? Partly because they are upset, a kind of transference. Partly because they're being forced to. There's a potency to these images that I think sometimes is robbed in Western media, which is all too ready just to caricature North Korea. These are real people, even if they are performing.
Cannan: It's also very important for us to put these images at the end of the film. The very last thing you see is Kim Jong-un. We want people to realize, they may hopefully have enjoyed being told a crazy intriguing story that's happened in the past, but the story of North Korea is certainly not over. People are still enduring the same kind of horrors right now as they were back then, when our story took place.

And as Ross said, the power of storytelling. I think this is a useful way of trying to understand why North Korea has been so successful and how they've managed to control their populace for so long, for so many decades, for three dynastic successions of father to son. And that ability to get people to believe in stories can be a wonderful thing in cinema and art and text, but can also be a terrifyingly dangerous thing, and we're not necessarily so far from that with modern-day politics in the West. There are things to think about and relevancies to today.

As Western filmmakers making a film about Korea, how do you think of a film differently if it's a story you're less familiar with or are less at stake in culturally? Is there a difference in how you were thinking about it or creating it?
Cannan: Maybe. Some South Koreans may watch the film, and they may say we didn't go into enough detail about the South Korean politics in the 70s that Shin got tangled up in. To them that's really important because it's part of their history. But, for us, we did think about going into more detail with that part of the story, but really it would have just been for those people. For anyone outside of South Korea, that would seem like incidental detail. To go into much more detail would be a disservice to the rest of the story, which we are trying to keep moving and keep people engaged with. I guess you have to just decide what is the most important part of the story you want to tell. And inevitably that is always going to leave out all kinds of things and details to the different parts of the story, and you're never going to be able to satisfy everyone.

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The Lovers and the Despot is now playing in select theaters. Visit the film's website for more information.