Movie Review: “The Lovers and the Despot”


The voices hiss off the cassette tapes, Cold War moments frozen in time.

Korean filmmaker Shin Sang-ok can be heard on them. His actress-wife, Choi Eun-hee made the recordings, and is heard as well.

But the star, the riveting presence that makes this element of the documentary “The Lovers and the Despot” so compelling? It’s North Korea’s playboy dictator Kim Jung-il, son of Kim Il-sung, father of Kim Jung-un. He’s laughing and joking and talking up big movie-making plans.

lovers2And he’s admitting, on tape recordings made without his knowledge, that he had the then-divorced first couple of South Korean cinema kidnapped and brought to him so that he could turn North Korean cinema into the envy of the world, lauded at film festivals, spreading the message of communism and the Kim Family Dynasty.

“The Lovers and the Despot” is a tale worthy of a hundred Cold War thrillers. A divorced actress on the backside of fame, lured to Hong Kong and kidnapped — drugged, hustled into a speed boat and onto a waiting freighter for the long trip to Pyongyang. We’ve all seen that James Bond movie.

Her director/ex-husband, out of favor with the South Korean regime at the time, losing his studio, going to Hong Kong to track down the missing ex-wife, and disappearing himself. Did he defect? Did he plan the whole thing? Movie people have been known to make deals with the devil to get work.

Years in prisons, years making lavish movies for the not-yet-in-power Dear Leader, accusations of treason, questioned motives and escape plots which involve those Heroes of Global Culture — film critics — all packed into this Made for Hollywood Blockbuster story.

BBC filmmakers Ross Adam and Robert Cannan built the documentary around those tapes, and extensive interviews with Choi, U.S. intelligence and State Dept. officials, Hong Kong police officers, relatives and colleagues. They generously sample the films of Shin, Choi, and North Korea propaganda fare, including the films the couple made under state supervision while there.

Cannan and Adam have created a classic Cold War documentary, with spycraft and intrigues and prisons and secret recordings, a tiny peek inside the secretive police state and its megalomaniacal ruling family.

And thanks to those tapes, the first ever to reach the West of the future Dear Leader’s voice, we come to understand what North Korea’s cloistered rulers really want — to make movies.


MPAA Rating: unrated, violence discussed

Cast: Choi Eun-hee, the voices of Shin Sang-ok, Kim Jung-il
Credits: Directed by Ross Adam, Robert Cannan, script by . A release.

Running time: 1:38

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