Shin Sang-ok, Kim Jong-il, and Choi Eun-hee in The Lovers and the Despot, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

The documentary The Lovers and the Despot recounts one of the strangest chapters in the ongoing war between North and South Korea: the 1978 kidnapping of beloved South Korean actress Choi Eun-hee and her ex-husband filmmaker, Shin Sang-ok, by North Korean agents. The reason? To fulfill the movie-obsessed North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il's ambitions of creating Asia's best film studio.

At the time, North Korea had engaged in a campaign of kidnapping Japanese and South Korean nationals, but the abduction of Choi and Shin was unusual, to say the least. The couple was held against their will, but given free rein to make movies and the funds to do so—something that Shin didn't have in South Korea. In two years they made 17 films, including North Korea's first love story.


Choi Eun-hee, Kim Jong-il, and Shin Sang-ok Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

We learn all this through interviews with Choi, Choi and Shin's children, and other talking heads; archival photos and footage; Shin's movie clips; reenactments; and, most intriguingly, audio recordings made surreptitiously by Choi and Shin, which include conversations with the Dear Leader himself. Choi describes the surreal experience—including their harrowing escape while on a trip to Vienna in 1986—as "just like a movie."

This true-life mystery leaves us with as many questions as answers. The one that haunted Shin after their escape was whether he had actually willingly defected to the North, as many South Koreans believed. Questions also swirled around Shin's close relationship to Kim, who he says "loves me and does everything he can for me." Cold War politics effectively killed Shin's film career in South Korea, and his career in Hollywood didn't fare much better. Ironically, Shin found the creative support and freedom he wanted so badly in North Korea. recommended