Since the birth of cinema, totalitarian governments have attempted to harness film’s potential as a tool of mass communication to propagate their political messages and drown out voices of opposition. It’s said that Joseph Stalin personally watched every Soviet film slated for release during the Great Purge from 1936 to 1938, while Adolf Hitler and his minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, established a film department within the Nazi party years before they seized power. This obsession of totalitarian governments to maintain absolute control over their national film industries perhaps reached its apogee with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il, a noted cinephile who wrote a book on cinema and even ordered the kidnapping of two of South Korea’s most important film figures to improve the quality of his country’s cinema.
The Lovers and the Despot tells the story of the filmmaking couple, director Shin Sang-ok and actress Choi Eun-hee, forced to make propaganda films for Kim Jong-il from 1978 to 1986 after they were separately taken hostage in Hong Kong. In telephone conversations secretly recorded by Shin during his time in North Korea, Kim Jong-il complained to the director about the low quality and formulaic nature of North Korean films. To remedy this, Kim Jong-il himself planned Shin and Choi’s kidnapping and maintained a strict personal watch over them during their time as his country’s most high-profile filmmakers. Shin and Choi’s story, a gripping yarn about betrayal and subterfuge, should have been exhilarating as cinema, but it somehow makes for a surprisingly dull documentary in Robert Cannan and Ross Adam’s hands.
Choi recounts her life in North Korea as one where she felt constantly on the edge of death; Shin spent five years in prison camps before being reunited with Choi, with whom he went on to make 17 films in a little over two years before they finally escaped to the West after several aborted attempts. Yet even here, their tale lacks the urgency it would seem to naturally exude due to Cannan and Adam’s clumsy decision to blend scenes from Shin and Choi’s films with reenactments of the couple’s ordeal in order to bring their story to life. This haphazard blending of fact and clips from disparate films unrelated to Shin and Choi’s personal saga further confuses an already intricate tale, forcing viewers to puzzle out the story on their own and perhaps even look beyond the documentary to make complete sense of the proceedings.
While the one-on-one interviews with Choi are poignant, the film’s most mesmerizing moments involve footage of state propaganda films praising Kim Jong-il and his father/predecessor, Kim Il-sung. Recalling Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, these clips showing massive public gatherings and impeccably choreographed parades are chilling for how they reveal the absolute control that totalitarianism can achieve over people’s lives.
If nothing else, The Lovers and the Despot is worth seeing for the surreal outpourings of national grief that accompanied Kim Il-sung’s death in 1994. Entire families were known to disappear overnight for the crime of insincere grieving, and footage of immeasurable throngs of people climbing over each other and tearing out their hair from their supposed sorrow shows the extent to which the North Korean government’s steady stream of melodramatic propaganda films had reduced the country’s populace to a state of almost childlike devotion to their dictator. Kim Jong-il instructed Shin and Choi to tell the media that they came to North Korea of their own free will in search of true artistic freedom, and audiences can see in these histrionic performances of public grief how convincing totalitarianism can become when all semblance of truth is eliminated, and only the lie remains.