Monday, September 19, 2016

A North Korea we've never seen -- in Cannan & Adam's fun doc, THE LOVERS AND THE DESPOT


How strange that the most enjoyable (and bizarre) film about North Korea so far -- and this would include even The Interview -- would be a documentary that pairs North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il with a South Korea film director and his actress wife that the little dictator first has kidnapped and then "persuades" to make movies up north instead of down south. THE LOVERS AND THE DESPOT takes us back to the 1970s and 80s, while giving us a view of Kim Jong-il that is not quite like anything we've heard or seen.

Granted, as viewed in this dishy and often delightful documentary directed by Rob Cannan (shown below) and Ross Adam (shown at left), little Jong-il comes off nothing much like the man his better (or was it worse?) father, Kim Il-sung, but maybe slightly better (worse?) than his own son, successor and current ruler, Kim Jong-un. Because what we outsiders can learn and understand about this little country that has for decades been shrouded in secrecy remains so paltry -- also so uncertain:
how do we know much of anything we hear is even true? -- North Korean has taken on something of a mystical nature in our minds. It's weird and awful, of course, but -- come on now -- it's kind of fascinating, too. And because most docs we've so far seen about this country have had their filmmaker's access restrained to the point of why bother? -- while the one narrative movie to tackle the subject, The Interview, proved much more successful as a satire of the American media and our drive for success at any cost than of North Korea itself -- The Lovers and the Despot immediately takes its place at the forefront of reality, despite its pretty loony-tunes content.

To get  right to it, that content tells the tale of a Kim Jong-il so besotted with love of movies -- and of the Hollywood and South Korean variety, rather than that of his stodgy, home-grown product -- that he (or maybe someone on his staff) comes up with the idea of kidnapping South Korea's leading actress, Choi Eun-hee (pictured above, in one of her roles) and maybe getting her to make movies for him.

Ms Choi had been married to one of South Korea's leading filmmakers, Shin Sang-ok (above), though the two, I think, were already divorced by now (turns out that Mr. Shin was an unfaithful hubby), and the couple had two adopted children (whom we see and hear from throughout the doc). Shin, bereft at the loss of his leading lady (and maybe still his love), gets depressed and can't find work at home, so when rumors arise of this possible North Korean kidnapping of Choi, he somehow arranges for himself to be "kidnapped," too, so he can join his woman.

Initially, Ms Choi is kept under a kind of easy-going house arrest, with periodic meetings with dictator Kim, while Mr Shin is shoved into a real prison and spends several years there. Eventually the little dictator reunites the pair, apologizes for their previous and not-so-hot circumstances, and the creative duo begin making movies for him. When these films becomes successful enough to find their way into film festivals in the east and finally the west, escape seems like a real possibility,

We see all this via what look like surprisingly well-done re-enactments that adhere to the look and feel of the the time period (grainy film stock, in-period fashions, cars and the like). Much of the North Korean footage could easily be real, taken by the folk who did the kidnapping (Kim and his henchmen seems very camera-oriented). Verbally, we get much of our remembrances from Ms Choi and her two children, as well as from a few "critics" of that day, and finally from some of the folk involved with the western powers. (Yes, the U.S, was part of all of this, too. Aren't we always?). Mr. Shin, for reasons we later learn, is not present verbally.

Turns out that, while credence is generally given to Ms Choi's story, disbelief is mostly the case where Shin is concerned. Whether he was kidnapped or "defected" is still up for grabs in both South Korea and in the west. (And yet his defection, after all, would have been in search of his wife.) All told, what we see and hear here makes about as much sense as anything else to come out the blinkered and hidden world of North Korea. Interestingly, what takes place in the old North Korean footage in this film often mimics what we've seen in other recent docs (such as Under the Sun and Songs From the North) about this hidden little country: parades, awards, ballet classes, and the ever-conforming populace involved in group displays of pride, joy or grief when the dictator dies. (We're told here that, if one's grief did not seem real enough, one could be "disappeared.") All of which underscores the sense that nothing -- not now, not then -- comes out of North Korea that is not micro-managed.

The most fascinating piece of this new doc is the look we get at Kim Jong-il, who, for all the horror that he, his dad and his son have inflicted on this sad country, would seem to be a fellow who genuinely loved movies and was affected/afflicted by them. Under his hand, Shin and Choi made some 17 features films, including the first actual love story to come from North Korea. (Shin remarks at some point about how wonderful it is not to have any more "money problems" while directing a movie. Take that, Capitalism!) These three had what appears to be a "real" relationship, so one also wonders about the betrayal, even sadness, Kim must have felt when his prize possessions suddenly hi-tailed it back to the south.

A United Kingdom production, released in the U.S, via Magnolia Pictures, The Lovers and the Despot -- in Korean, Japanese and English, with English subtitles when needed -- runs 98 minutes. It opens this Friday, September 23, in New York City, Washington DC, the Los Angeles area, Boston, and Philadephia, with further expansion across the country in the weeks to come. Click here and then click on GET TICKETS to see all currently scheduled playdates, with cities and theaters listed. 

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