“The Lovers and the Despot” is a documentary that examines life and culture in North Korea through the lens of dictator Kim Jong Il’s attempt to create an internationally recognized film industry in North Korea. Against the backdrop of long-existing Cold War tensions between North and South Korea, a South Korean director and an actress, Shin Sang Ok and Choi Eun Hee, respectively, have become the central figures of a vanity-fueled attempt by late North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il to create film projects that rival those of South Korea.
The co-directors of “The Lovers and the Despot,” Ross Adam and Robert Cannan, use the experiences of Shin and Choi to illustrate the absurd extent to which North Korea’s leadership will go to satisfy the egos of the Kim dynasty. With the use of audio recordings from Shin as well as footage of North Korean pageantry and daily life, the directors succeed in revealing life within the infamous regime.
“The Lovers and the Despot” goes beyond mere factual analysis, taking time to examine the emotional and personal side of each person involved. Significant time is given to analyze the demeanor and personality of both Kim and Shin. The narrative of Shin’s troubles and his ambitions evokes an understanding of his complicated relationship with North Korea’s despot.
A fuller picture also begins to develop regarding the psyche of Kim and his various passions, including one for the arts. Choi offers the starkest analysis of the couple’s time, giving an intimate glimpse into her mental state at the time, as well as that of the now-deceased Shin. Through various other testimonials, a complete account of the couple’s experiences and psyches during this period emerges.
The directors developed a keen eye toward capturing the realities of life in North Korea through archival footage. The imagery of the dynamics of North Korean life demonstrate the statecraft of autocracy and its capacity to elicit not only fear but also feigned emotions in its citizenry. This capacity for manufacturing synthetic emotion and friendship was also mastered by the two protagonists in their effort to remain in the good graces of their benevolent host and abductor.
Kim’s twisted account of their stay showcased Choi and Shin as willing visitors who had spurned the luxuries of the Western World. Every image and bit of footage released of them seemed to indicate that they were enjoying their stay. In reality, this was a thin veneer, which barely masked the couple’s fear and suffering under the stifling authoritarianism of the regime. While they had been supplied with all the resources they would ever need for creating their art, they were cognizant that they were only within Kim’s benevolence as long as they remained true to his aims and narrative.
At its heart, this documentary is a story about resilience and patience. In a case of life imitating art, Shin put to use his knowledge of various films, such as Steve McQueen’s “The Great Escape,” to piece together a plan for his own getaway. Both he and Choi became enamored with the generosity and acclaim they garnered in North Korea and the Communist Bloc for a time, but success could only obfuscate their lack of freedoms for so long. This is the real conflict of the film: whether people should sacrifice their political freedoms in order to be able to fully exercise their artistic sensibilities and passions.
In the end, the film is not only a portrayal of the personal trials of the couple, but also the extent of the cult of personality that surrounds the Kim family and the methodologies used by Kim Jong Il to maintain his absolute authority over his subjects. The directors do well in using this anecdotal experience in order to point to the broader issues facing those living north of the 38th parallel. This piece is a well-constructed observation of the idiosyncratic state of North Korean society.
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