By Johannes Schönherr.
The Lovers and the Despot, a 2016 documentary by British directors Robert Cannan and Ross Adam, tackles an especially bizarre episode in Korean history playing out in the late 1970s / the first half of the 1980s. An episode that has been told countless times in magazine articles and newspaper texts as “Movie-crazy North Korean dictator kidnaps South Korean director and his movie star wife and keeps them hostage, forcing them to advance his film industry. When they get their first chance to do so, they run away to America.” While that was certainly not incorrect, there is much more to the story than a quick headline. It may sound strange but suddenly, many years after the actual events transpired, three very different, movie-related parties realized the potential of the story and began to dig deeper. All of them were British and all of them started out at about the same time, in about 2009. Why then? It’s a mystery none of the involved seem to be able to answer. When asked, they all answer with a plain “It was about time to tell the story.” Perhaps the time to make sense of the story had simply come.
Legendary film producer Jeremy Thomas (The Last Emperor, 1987) hired director Paul Berczeller and tasked him with doing research on the subject and writing a script. The resulting film was slated to be released in 2014 under the title A Kim Jong Il Production. The project was however shelved during pre-production. If it will be resurrected remains to be seen. London film producer Paul Fischer, on the other hand, saw no cinematic potential. He saw no way how the story could be successfully filmed for a mainstream Western audience, he later said. But he thought that the story would make a great book. He did his research and eventually sat down, wrote and published a book, released to great acclaim and press attention in early 2015 under the title A Kim Jong Il Production (Flatiron Books). No connection to Jeremy Thomas’ film project of the same title? That’s what Fischer claims. No connection whatsoever.
The third party were Robert Cannan and Ross Adam. Cannan had made a documentary on a Swedish hippie festival before; for Adam it was the first movie. They basically came out of nowhere. Once they discovered that Paul Fischer was in the process of writing a book on the same topic they were researching, they interviewed him. Fischer is not onscreen in the documentary but he is listed in the “thank you” list in the final credits. Fischer said in various interviews at the time that he didn’t think much of the documentary project. By now, he might reconsider his opinion.
Cannan and Ross indeed succeeded with The Lovers and the Despot in making a very solid documentary featuring an amazing amount of historic documents, some of them presented in their film for the first time to the general public. These include secret recordings of a candidly, privately talking Kim Jong Il, revealing much about the secretive leader of North Korea. Right at the beginning of the film, an onscreen caption spells out that after the Korean War (1950 – 1953), which ended in a stalemate, the two competing Koreas, North and South, started to try to upstage each other in cultural fields, cinema being an especially important battlefield.
It’s a cinema-heavy story Cannan and Ross tell here. By all accounts, the featured main protagonists all had a somewhat blurry understanding of reality and more or less behaved as if they were living in their own film-induced world. Cannan and Ross add to the blurred reality their central documentary subjects seem to inhabit by blurring the field further, freely adding stock footage, film excerpts and staged scenes to the visuals while their interview partners tell their stories. Sometimes, you just don’t know what the images on screen really are. Re-enactments? Redundant imagery underscoring the interviews? Their approach might look confusing at first but considering the personalities portrayed, it makes sense.
It might be worth taking a closer, more sober look at the three protagonists first. Their backgrounds are introduced within the film via a wealth of stock footage and interview sequences, but perhaps it’s better to just sit back and read up a little on them before proceeding.
Let’s start with “The Despot”: North Korea’s “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il (1942 – 2011) was known to be a fanatic film lover. Being the son of the founder of North Korea, “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung (1912 – 1994), young Kim joined the Agitation and Propaganda Department of the Worker’s Party (in fact, the propaganda ministry) in about 1965. The various North Korean film studios were all under the direct supervision of the Agitation Department. Like most ideologically grounded dictators of his time, “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung was aware of the propagandistic power of cinema. His film studios churned out movie after movie. Domestic successes for sure, if only for the fact that those were the only films his people were allowed to see.
His son Kim Jong Il had bigger things in mind. Using his position at the Agitation Department, he set out to revolutionize North Korean cinema. He soon launched the production of grand-scale epics, based on plays his father had allegedly written, with the goal of making North Korea a powerhouse in international cinema. International success would reflect back on domestic audiences as well, he reckoned. In the beginning, he didn’t do so badly, actually. His 1972 production Flower Girl won a Special Prize at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival in Czechoslovakia, the main film showcase of the Eastern Bloc. The film also became a giant hit in China where millions were moved by the sad fate of the main characters. (But then again, Chinese audiences at the time of the ongoing Cultural Revolution could only choose between domestic, Albanian and North Koreans productions.)
In 1973, Kim Jong Il published a book titled On the Art of the Cinema, aiming at a general improvement of North Korean productions across the board. The book immediately became the central guideline for all North Korean film professionals. Soon, the rules laid out in the book turned into orthodox standards. Nobody would dare to deviate from the holy lines. The result was a staid, uninspired film making. To realize his dream of a powerful North Korean film industry, able to compete in the international market, Kim Jong Il needed to look for new talent. Talent with artistically create minds but at the same time, talent that would be totally under his control.
Now, “The Lovers”: Shin Sang-ok (1926 – 2006) was born in Chongjin in what is now North Korea. When he grew up, Korea was run by Japan. He studied film in Tokyo but returned to Korea shortly before the end of the war, chased out of Tokyo by the frequent American firebombing campaigns. By then, his family had settled in Seoul, so he moved there. Shin worked on the first post-war South Korean film Viva Freedom (1946), a Korean nationalist outcry directed by Choe In-kyu, a director who had earlier made war propaganda films for Japan. Filmmaking as a central purpose in life, no matter who paid for the films, was a stance Shin inherited from Choe.
Shin’s first own film was The Evil Night (1952), a movie centering on a prostitute serving American soldiers during the Korean War. Reportedly, he was living with exactly such a prostitute during the time of shooting and her work financed the making of the film. In the years following the Korean War, Shin quickly rose to be one of the leading directors of the nascent South Korean film industry. Somewhere along the way he made the acquaintance of Choi Eun-hee (born in 1926), a young, aspiring actress. The two soon married.
During the 1960s, Shin and Choi seemed to be at the pinnacle of their careers. Thanks to Shin featuring her in his movies, Choi was South Korea’s biggest movie star. Shin, on the other hand, by then owned South Korea’s biggest film studio, appropriately named Shin Films. He churned out film after film, South Korean dictator Park Chung-hee becoming one of his biggest admirers and Shin held private premiere parties for his newest films at Park’s mansion, his films often directly supporting Park’s policies.
By the early 1970s, however, things started to fall apart for Shin and Choi. Shin started a secret love affair with a young actress which led to his divorce from Choi. At the same time, Shin had a fallout with dictator Park Chung-hee over Shin’s provocative disregard for Park’s more and more strict censorship rules. Park closed down Shin’s studio in 1975. Shin was desperate. Referring to the years to follow, Shin later wrote: “Those three years [1975 – 1978] when I was forcibly kept away from film represented the most difficult, frustrating and unbearable period of my life.”
The year 1978 would bring a grave change. Shin’s and Choi’s life would intersect with Kim Jong Il’s plans. That’s where the story told in the documentary really starts.
By 1978, divorced from Shin and in her forties, Choi Eun-hee faced a serious downturn in her acting career. When an offer to negotiate a film project arrived from Hong Kong, Choi went to the city. A few days after her arrival, she vanished without a trace. Looking for her, Shin Sang-ok also went to Hong Kong – and also vanished without a trace.
The next time they appeared in front of international cameras was at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival in 1984. There, they presented their first North Korean production, An Emissary Unreturned, largely shot with Czech actors at the Barrandov Film Studios in Prague. They were happy to work for “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il now, they told the international press.
Choi recounts in the documentary, how she was met at her arrival in North Korea by Kim Jong Il, how she was forced to live at a guesthouse for several years, occasionally being invited to attend Kim Jong Il’s parties. North Korean footage of Choi’s early meetings with Kim support her accounts. There is no such footage of Shin from those years. He later said that he tried to escape from North Korea a few times upon his arrival and that he then spent several years in prison. Shin feigned conversion to the North Korean ideology and finally convinced his handlers that he was on their side.
At a big party, Kim Jong Il reunited Shin and Choi and told them to marry again. Footage of the party is in the film, featuring Kim Jong Il proudly presiding over the reunification of the filmmaking couple. Shortly after, Kim invited Shin and Choi to his office and told them in a private setting what he expected them to do: to make North Korea a powerful force in international cinema. Choi surreptitiously taped Kim’s speech – as she did during several further meetings.
Parts of the tapes can be heard in the documentary. It was extremely rare that Kim Jong Il would speak in public; in fact his voice was unknown to all outsiders except for a very short greeting of the Armed Forces at a Pyongyang rally. In the tapes, Kim Jong Il stops short before admitting any kidnapping. He just talks about the “operation to bring you here” and apologizes to Shin for his mistreatment at prison, calling it a “misunderstanding” and blaming it at low-ranking staff.
Kim Jong Il offered Shin a new Shin Film studio, unlimited funds and creative freedom. But he also demanded results. International recognition of North Korean films in particular. Shin made 7 films in North Korea, all in the timespan between 1983 and 1986. In a few of them, Choi is the main star. Her indeed very impressive role in the 1985 film Salt won her the best actress award at the Moscow Film Festival in that same year.
The film from this period Shin is still best remembered for today, however, is Pulgasari (1985). It’s a North Korean monster movie in the Godzilla tradition. In fact, the special effects team of the Toho Studios in Tokyo, the original producers of the Godzilla franchise, had been hired to work on Pulgasari. The man in the Pulgasari monster suit, Kenpachiro Satsuma, was the man who was also the actor inside the Godzilla rubber suit at the time. Kim Jong Il certainly had no inhibitions on giving Shin carte blanche on all expenses.
At the same time, Choi and Shin plotted their escape from North Korea. Though Shin had everything he ever wanted as a film director in North Korea, namely unlimited funds, thousands of extras, and everything he asked for was provided (including the permission to blow up a real train as the climax of one of his films), he wanted to get out. Together with Choi.
The chance came at a visit to Vienna in 1986. Shin and Choi made a run for the American embassy.
Shin and Choi relocated to the U.S. and Shin became the producer for the Disney film series 3 Ninjas (1995), a moderate success. Eventually, the couple moved back to Seoul. Though considered a living legend in South Korea, Shin wasn’t able to restart his film career. He died in 2006.
In his final years, Shin often spoke about the respect and the generous production conditions he had enjoyed in North Korea. He seemed to miss it. Understandably, given the difficulties he experienced in Hollywood and South Korea. In addition, many film people in South Korea as well as internationally, distrusted Shin’s kidnapping statements and believed that he went to North Korea on his own. The skepticism about the kidnapping issue still persists.
Cannan and Ross received the bulk of their historical footage, copies of Shin’s North Korean films and of course, the secret recordings of the conversations with Kim Jong Il from Choi Eun-hee. A long interview with her forms the backbone of the documentary. Choi is adamant that both she and Shin had been kidnapped to North Korea.
It would be understandable if Cannan and Ross would fully share her view but to a certain extent, they too seem to be skeptical about the issue. A few of the featured interview partners at least express doubts that Shin was really taken to North Korea by force.
But at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter that much if Shin was kidnapped or lured to North Korea. Either way, it’s a fascinating story.
Johannes Schönherr is the author of North Korean Cinema – A History (McFarland, 2012).