When Kim Jong-il reigned over North Korean, in the midst of starving and imprisoning the people, the “fearless leader” also dreamed of enhancing the country’s reputation in the world of cinema. He did this the best way he saw fit, by kidnapping South Korean filmmaker, Shin Sang-ok and actress, Choi Eun-hee in 1978. Once kidnapped they became his personal filmmakers and had no choice but to create an impressive amount of movies for the country. From the outside it looked like Choi and Shin had voluntarily lent their skills — that it was their choice to work in North Korea — making their escape increasingly difficult and seemingly impossible.
In The Lovers and the Despot, filmmakers Robert Cannan and Ross Adam explore the truth behind the kidnapping in interviews with Choi (Shin died in 2006) and her children. The film also includes audio tapes from Choi and Shin’s conversations with Kim Jong-il. We spoke with Cannan and Adam about this bizarre time in North Korean history and the dictator’s passion for cinema.
When you started making the film, how much did you know about the story and what more did you want to uncover?
Ross Adam: It just seemed like such a rich story already and the more we delved, the more amazing details there were. One of the challenges, really, was how to squeeze it into a 90-minute film.
Robert Cannan: We’re not just professional squeezers, but the idea of the filmmaker being given all the resources he can be given to make a film for the North Koreans… beyond the place being a natural fascination to us, it’s a film about kidnapping. It has a lot going on.
Adam: And, of course, we love cinema. That’s why we make films and here was a story set in the world of cinema and about storytellers. We were fascinated by these two men who were obsessed with cinema and how that pulls them together into this crazy story.
What do you make of Kim Jong-il’s passion for cinema and how critical he was of North Korean cinema before the kidnapping?
Cannan: That’s interesting to us because any more dimension we can give to a monster like Kim Jong-il is good storytelling. And we’re interested in, not the monster, but the human being behind the monster. And his awareness of the deficiencies of North Korean filmmaking is the motivating factor behind the kidnaping — it is a strange motivating factor.
Adam: He desperately wanted the best films and to put North Korea on the world cinema map. But, in that respect, he was the one perpetuating the system, particularly as he took over from his father. So the North Koreans could only make films to the limitations of their really restrictive and isolated world that he has helped create. He was a victim of his own creation in that sense.
How was it hearing the tapes of him speak, when you first heard those, and the way he talked about film?
Adam: Amazing. We had already heard that Kim Jong-il’s voice hadn’t been heard before. We had to dig around to make sure that was indeed the case. As far as we could find out, there’s only one other line spoken from him in public and that happened a few years after Choi and Shin escaped. So it’s interesting to hear this character that you can’t hear anywhere else, which gave these tapes a special and precious quality knowing how original they were. It’s fascinating hearing him talk and how obsessed he is with cinema and how driven he is to try to do something about it and the lengths he’s prepared to go.
Cannan: I suppose we were kind of stunned by his matter-of-factness, very deliberate, and I suppose you would expect a pathological dictator to not really connect with the real experiences. But just explain, “Yep, you’re here because I’ve got an ailing film industry. That’s why you’re here, guys.” And that’s kind of shocking in a way. And it’s amazing these tapes exist, it was very forward thinking to record that.
And Choi kept these recordings unheard for so long. Prior to your doc, did she have a specific plan for the tapes, how she wanted to release them?
Cannan: Some bits of the tape were released ages ago in South Korea, but only the bits from the first meeting they have with them — when he does talk about why he brought them over and seems to imply that he gave the orders for them to be brought over and refers to them as active prisoners. And those moments were the key evidence which helped vindicate and convince, as far as we’ve known, the American CIA and [South] Korea — that they hadn’t gone willingly, that they had been kidnapped. I think from Choi’s point of view, for that reason that was a really important thing, which she knew would be in the film. And they promised that we could have it and we read translations of excerpts from it early on. I think they hadn’t really anticipated how important the other tapes would be to our story. It’s fascinating, the unfolding relationship between them.
How difficult was it, in interviews with Choi and her family, to have them open up? Did it take long to gain their trust?
Adam: It took a while, especially with Choi, to build the trust to make the film to begin with. And then to get different aspects of the rights, it took a long time to go through that process. Koreans, maybe this is a cultural thing, initially they were very resistant and were very tough negotiators and it took a long time to reach an agreement. But once you finally get to that point, once they decide they’re going to do this, then they make it easy for you. So at that point we never really felt like there was anything we couldn’t ask her. When we were negotiating the rights, they wanted to impose all kinds of restrictions on what we could do. We said, “This is only going to work contractually if we have final say on the film and make it without any interference.” There can’t be a film that seems like we’re making it for them. We’re making it subjective as independent filmmakers. And I think finally they understood that point and agreed to it.
Had Choi resisted and rejected a lot of people prior to meeting you?
Cannan: They were in several conversations with people already when we approached them and that continued. There has been a lot of interest and they’ve been resistant to all of it, so it was really through perseverance, and charm, that we wore them down. [Laughs.]
How do you feel about telling the story without Shin — creating his voice in the story after his death?
Cannan: It was not an easy challenge considering the fact that we did not know about one of the key tapes, where Shin narrates his story while captured by North Korea, until very late in the editing process. We were looking for a piece of archive to bring him to life and it didn’t come til quite late and it made things difficult for us. But once it did arrive, we thought that’s the final piece of the puzzle. We’ve got a film here.
Adam: He is an enigmatic character. We knew that was a big part of it. And we knew that he had made so many films and watching his films, you get a powerful sense of him, bringing aspects of his ego into some of the protagonists. So we knew we would be using his films to tell parts of his story. But it still felt very remote without having any more of him there, just a few clips of him when he’s a bit younger in archive and not really talking. So it was really once we had him in these conversations with Kim Jong-il that we knew we could bring him to life.
Has there been a response from North Korea about the documentary, or do you anticipate one?
Adam: Not yet, is the short answer.
Cannan: We await their response cautiously. There’s quite a lot of contemporary North Korean docs coming out at the moment and some of those people will have to deal with North Korea. I think they’re probably more concerned with things that are directly relevant to now and contemporary stories. And maybe this is a bit too far in the past to be bothered about. But, we’ll see.
What do you think of the way Kim Jong-un has carried on the country’s film business, do you seem him as passionate about it as his father?
Adam: He’s more of a sports guy and doesn’t seem to be too bothered by film, as far as we know. And we spoke to a couple of people involved in North Korean cinema who occasionally get invited out there, and it’s just one way that North Korea has some connection to the outside world and will invite some people, some filmmakers, out there. We doubt we’re going to get an invitation with this one.