Review: The Lovers & The Despot

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As the most isolated nation on the planet, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has naturally inspired pop-culture fascination in recent years, due to any number of documentaries and aided – in no small part – by its alleged cyber-attack on Sony in response to so-so comedy The Interview. The time, then, is ripe for an exploration of this as-funny-as-it-is-horrifying story of the former dictator and his disturbing obsession with one of his cinematic heroes. A riveting story of obsession and, ultimately, Stockholm Syndrome, The Lovers & The Despot is a fascinating look at one of the darkest tales in the history of world cinema, but it might not be one you’re entirely willing to believe.

The story is one of celebrity adulation gone rampant, in which Kim Jong-Il lured divorced actress Choi Eun-Hee to Hong Kong in order to abduct her and whisk her away to North Korea. In what might be the most hilariously lucky gamble you’ve ever heard, Kim calculated that her disappearance would in turn lure her ex-husband, director Shin Sang-Ok, to follow on her trail and walk straight into an abduction all his very own. The move paid off, and soon Kim had himself both a megastar director and renowned actress with which to prop up the North Korean film industry – a propaganda move so insidious that the dictator would even force the pair to remarry in the process.

Utilising a wealth of impressive and illicitly obtained archival materials, The Lovers & The Despot is a corker of a story – made whole through full-bodied presentation by relatively unknown filmmakers Ross Adam and Robert Cannan. Where it begins to fray, however, is in its ultimate human presentation; Shin is no longer with us, and so it is left entirely to Choi to present their side of a story that has been the subject of conversation for more than thirty years, and somewhat understandably feels more than a little rehearsed as a result – possibly stretching credibility for more cynical viewers.

Adam and Cannan’s desire to tell the couple’s story as a window into such an alluringly closed society, meanwhile, proves tonally troublesome. The harrowing nature of the abduction is at odds with the commonly jovial tone with which the DPRK, and the always bonkers Kim, are handled in the current climate. There are jarring transitions between the two elements, a flaw made worse by the, albeit impressive, inclusion of candid recordings of the outright conversational dictator discussing his love of cinema with the man he perceives to be his hero. No one can fault Adam or Cannan entirely here – the very nature of the DPRK means access to interviewees and materials comes with serious limitations, after all – but The Lovers & The Despot works best as edutainment rather than a straight-up chronicle, and its story stands best under little scrutiny.

The Lovers & The Despot is in cinemas nationwide from Friday, September 23rd; rated PG. Check out the trailer below.

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