The Lovers and the Despot

Today’s political landscape may beggar belief — beware Murder Skittles! — but Ross Adam and Robert Cannan’s fascinating documentary The Lovers and the Despot recounts a political story that would be unbelievable if weren’t true. Shin Sang-Ok and Choi Eun-hee were a power couple in the South Korean film industry in the 1950s and ’60s; Shin, a successful director, and Choi, a glamorous actress. Both their careers and the personal lives were declining in 1978, when North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il kidnapped them, imprisoned them separately for five years, and then forced them to start making movies. Before escaping three years later, they made 17 films, most of which were never seen outside North Korea — the big exception being the notorious monster flick Pulgarasi, viewable on YouTube but curiously unmentioned here. That these events occurred is not in dispute — in a true baller move, Choi surreptitiously recorded Kim Jong-il’s voice and smuggled out the tapes when she escaped — so the movie’s primary mystery is the continuing controversy as to whether or not Shin was indeed kidnapped and brainwashed, or whether he defected willingly. Shin died in 2006, and his late-period work on Disney’s 3 Ninjas franchise offers no hints, but whatever was in his heart makes The Lovers and the Despot no less bizarre.

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