The Lovers and the Despot

After the collapse of their glamorous romance, a famous director and actress are kidnapped by movie-obsessed dictator Kim Jong-il. Forced to make films in the world's weirdest state, they get a second chance at love, but only one chance at escape.


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  • ★★★★ review by Alex Kittle on Letterboxd

    A fascinating and terrifying documentary about one of South Korea's most respected filmmakers, Shin Sang-ok, and its most popular actress, Choi Eun-hee, who were abducted by North Korean agents in the late 70s. They are held for years and eventually forced to make films for Kim Jong-il, who uses the famous couple as propagandistic tools. During their time working for him they were able to secretly record conversations with Kim Jong-il and smuggle out the tapes, and these audio recordings are combined with interviews (primarily with Choi Eun-her so she can tell her own story) and stock footage of Shin's films to present a complex, seemingly unreal true story. 

    It falls into various documentary tropes, but the content and interviews are strong enough that I was totally absorbed, and impressed with how difficult the film must have been to make due to the mysteries surrounding North Korea. Would love to see a Korean director make a narrative film about this. 

    Would also love to see some of Shin's films but I'm having trouble finding release info (please help me out if you know anything about their availability in the US).

  • ★★★★ review by Glenn Dunks on Letterboxd

    Documentaries about North Korea have an unfair advantage. Their stories are so outlandishly absurd that they're entertaining almost by default.

  • ★★★½ review by Dan Johnson on Letterboxd

    A true testament to the enduring power of the human spirit, "The Lovers and the Despot" chronicles a story almost too outrageous to be true: a South Korean celebrity couple (a director and his movie star wife) are kidnapped by Kim-Jong il and taken to North Korea for the next decade as they are forced to tirelessly produce propaganda films in honor of their "great" leader. Making the best of their stay--the director has finally been gifted with endless resources to make whatever he wants--many years go by as they wait with extreme patience to plot their escape.

    As a documentary, it's fairly straightforward, but provides unparalleled access to Kim-Jong il himself (including tape recordings that are as funny as they are nightmarishly bizarre), managing to illicit sympathy from the viewer over the tragedy that was (and is) the Kim dynasty. Alongside "Tickled," this is among the very best documentaries of the year, if only because it has mined a brilliant story for all of its dramatic potential. While the filmmakers do a fine job re-staging many sequences--including a white-knuckle pursuit up the steps of the American Embassy in Vienna--this truly needs the narrative feature treatment. In investigating Kim-Jong il's love of cinema, the story reveals just how desperate in his loneliness he actually was, living vicariously through stories while pouting in his throne from up on high.

  • ★★★½ review by Edwin Davies on Letterboxd

    Solid telling of a fantastic story. Formally it's not that adventurous - though the integration of Shin's movies to illustrate keys points in the narrative is very artfully done - but that feels less like a failure of conviction than a desire to not get in the way of an incredible tale of love, betrayal, and Kim Jong-il.

    It's most interesting when it touches on the relationship between Kim and his captives, and especially on Shin's seemingly mixed feelings about being kidnapped yet having access to more resources than he ever had in South Korea, but that makes up a frustratingly small section of the film. The dynamics at play in those moments could fuel an entire movie on their own.

  • ★★★½ review by Matt Barca on Letterboxd

    MIFF 2016 Film #15 - Hell of a story, with good source material in the form of tapes made of meetings between Kim Jong Il & the South Korean director subject.

    Rare stuff.

    Pacing wasn't great though. They could've told it more concisely & kept me from micro-snoozing throughout the second half of the documentary.

    I'm surprised that it sold out such a big Hoyts cinema, and so early after the release of the MIFF schedule.

    An engrossing topic that would certainly keep me awake under normal sleeping conditions.

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