Set aside all human decency and imagine, for a moment, that you’re Kim Jong-il. Imagine it's 1978, and you're pushing 40, still Great Leader's son rather than the future Dear Leader. You have yearned for years to create a truly great North Korean cinema, one whose films would be celebrated around the world. (A cinema charged with extolling your family's divinity, of course.) To that end, you've arranged the kidnapping of a favorite South Korean film star, actress Choi Eun-hee, stolen away from Hong Kong by your own secret agents.
You hope soon to reunite her with her ex-husband and longtime collaborator, director Shin Sang-ok, whom you also plan to spirit away to your private kingdom with a mandate to build you a studio. But first, before anything else, you must introduce yourself to Choi, your hostage, a woman in terror who has been told, like the rest of the world, that you and your father are monsters. How would you greet her? What could you possibly say that might ease your star's mind and make her receptive to the idea that you're giving her an opportunity rather than a life of servitude?
Here's how the real Kim Jong-il introduced himself, according to Choi: “Aren't I small like a midget's turd?”
That actually served its purpose as an icebreaker, Choi reports in one of several curious interviews about a curious imprisonment in this most curious documentary. Choi understood that so long as she appeared to cooperate with this self-effacing midget-turd/god-king, she was not in immediate danger. Acting saved her life and spared her the torture and brainwashing that Shin later suffered after his own kidnapping; in later life, after their escape from North Korea, Shin would be accused of having been a willing participant in the dictator's dream.
The Lovers and the Despot emphasizes his suffering, his escape attempts and then — in the three years that Shin directed seven films with Kim Jong-il as a producer — his public statements of pride in his work. Imagining Shin's thinking demands more nuance than imagining the despot's, but it's not at all unreasonable to believe that the director, who had so often struggled to secure financial backing in South Korea, could simultaneously exhibit pleasure in the resources given to him by his captor/benefactor and still be eager to escape.
Robert Cannan and Ross Adam's documentary account of Choi and Shin's stint as the dictator's son's personal moviemakers bristles with bizarre, memorable detail. Much of this comes from primary sources: Choi's secret tape recordings of Kim Jong-il himself, or sequences of terrible power from inside Pyongyang. The directors often return to a celebration in which a throng of thousands, spaced as evenly as the digits in a multiplication table, chants and waves pink blossoms over their heads; shot from above, this looks like the poppy field from The Wizard of Oz somehow ready to march to war.
Cannan and Adam's interviewees — Choi, intelligence agents, film critics — tell the story with more suspense than talking heads usually muster. The film is brisk and fascinating, ultimately moving, but also less rich than it might have been. We see footage of Shin's films, but The Lovers and the Despot never finds time to examine at length the most fascinating of questions: What movies did a mind like Kim Jong-il's dream of? And within those dictates, under that pressure, did Shin and Choi — now remarried — still achieve artistry?