Shin Sang-ok produced the 3 Ninjas franchise in Hollywood and some
of Kim Jong-il’s most ambitious propaganda films. Like his ex-wife, actress
Choi Eun-hee, Shin had to live with many decisions that were outside his
control. Kidnapped by the North Korean Communist regime, Shin and Choi renewed
their romance as they bided their time, waiting for an opportunity to escape.
Their absolutely incredible story is chronicled in Rob Cannan & Ross Adam’s
documentary, The Lovers and the Despot, which screens during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.
In the late 1950s and 1960s, Shin and Choi
were the power couple of South Korean prestige cinema. They were the toast of
the international festival circuit and popular at home. Unfortunately, Shin was
a poor businessman and a flawed husband. At a time when his production company
was drowning in red ink, Shin started an affair with a younger actress. After
giving him the boot, Choi left for Hong Kong to explore a lucrative movie
offer. Unfortunately, it was a set-up to facilitate her abduction, on Kim
Jong-il’s orders. Hoping to find his alarmed son and daughter’s missing mother,
Shin followed her trail in Hong Kong, exactly as the North Koreans hoped.
Kim hoped to “convince” Choi and Shin to
elevate clunky DPRK movie-making into the equal of the vastly superior South
Korean film industry they knew so well. Bizarrely, it took Kim five years to
implement his plan. In the interim, Shin was held in a prison camp, while Kim
essentially kept Choi on display, like an orchid in his private greenhouse. Of
course, when he finally asked, they duly agreed, because what choice did they
Yet, Shin and Choi were always reluctant
participants in Kim’s productions. Hoping to escape one day, they secretly
recorded exculpatory conversations with the exalted royal dictator. Rather
incredibly, their micro-cassettes represent some of the only recordings of Kim
II’s voice. Eventually, they would be vindicated, but for years, South Koreans
assumed they had sold out to the North.
This is one of the most remarkable stranger-than-fiction
episodes of the Twentieth Century. It has more suspense and intrigue than the
collected George Smiley series, but it is also an incredible love story. Cannan
& Adam have a particular affinity for the romantic aspect of the tale, as
does Choi herself, whose frequent presence enriches the film tremendously.
Lovers also happens to be
a super-well put together documentary, shoehorning in plenty of historical
context and conveying a colorful sense of the titular lovers’ films, without
slowing the pace or interrupting the narrative flow. Just when you think it can’t
get any weirder, Choi reveals another twist. It is a truly fascinating story
that will leave viewers eager for a comprehensive retrospective of their work
(including Shin’s Pulgasari, North
Korea’s first kaiju movie). Very highly recommended, The Lovers and the Despot screens again this Tuesday (1/26) in Salt
Lake, and Thursday (1/28) and Friday (1/29) in Park City, as part of this year’s
Sundance Film Festival.
Labels: Choi Eun-hee, Documentary, North Korea, Shin Sang-ok, Sundance '16