Sundance ’16: Intrigue meets archive

Realscreen catches up with directors Rob Cannan and Ross Adam, whose archival documentary The Lovers and the Despot (pictured) tells the bizarre story of a South Korean filmmaking couple kidnapped by agents of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il.
January 26, 2016

When most people reflect on history’s notorious dictators, they might think of the leader as zealous orator, standing at a podium and gesticulating wildly at a gathered crowd. You might not understand exactly what they’re saying, but the intonation of their speech is familiar. Of course, unlike Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, this isn’t the case for North Korea’s Kim Jong-il, who shied away from delivering public speeches, and was seldom heard by his own people, let alone the West.

Now, five years after his death in 2011, a Sundance-bound documentary with all the trappings of a Hollywood caper is – oddly enough – giving a voice to the dictator.

British directors Robert Cannan and Ross Adam’s The Lovers and the Despot is the story of two South Korean film stars – debonair director Shin Sang-ok and his partner, actor Choi Eun-hee – who were kidnapped by the North Korean regime in 1978 to serve as the film-loving dictator’s personal movie makers for eight years.

The film was produced by the BFI, Creative England, BBC Storyville, Hellflower and Tigerlily in association with The Documentary Company, Influence Film, ZDF/Arte, NTR and SVT. The doc also received the support of the European Union’s Media program, the Sundance Institute Documentary Fund and Tribeca Documentary Fund.

In plotting an escape out of the country, the pair began secretly recording conversations with the leader, who often spoke passionately about the need for stronger North Korean films. However, though these tapes did resurface in South Korea – recordings were distributed with a magazine featuring Shin and Choi’s story in the late 1980s – Cannan and Adam say they have never been presented as they are in The Lovers and the Despot.

“Let’s start to expand on a political level. With our actions and gestures…we can keep the South guessing and make them jealous,” Kim Jong-il says conspiratorially to Shin in one recording.

Cannan and Adam – long-time friends who had previously known of the story – began discussing and researching the case around 2008, and when they realized a feature film had never been made, they contacted the Seoul-based Choi through a translator. Within a few weeks, they were headed to South Korea, though it would take months to navigate the legal negotiations to secure the rights to the story.

robert cannan, ross adam

Robert Cannan, Ross Adam

“We soon discovered that part of the reason no one had made a film is that they were very, very picky and protective about the story and about all of their materials and they were actually in conversations with a number of different prodcos,” says Cannan.

The filmmakers ultimately earned their subject’s trust and the documentary features interviews with Choi, as well as her children and other figures close to the story. The centerpiece of the documentary, though, is the couple’s collection of recordings of Kim Jong-il.

“We only got hold of all the recordings translated towards the end of our editing process, [which was] fortuitous but also annoying because they were really what allowed us to make the story how we wanted,” explains Adam, adding that a critical recording of Shin – who passed away in 2006 – speaking with a Japanese film critic allowed them to build his character.

The Lovers - which was pitched at the IDFA Forum in 2011 – is the latest in a string of audio-focused efforts in documentary, following such films as Stevan Riley’s Listen to Me Marlon, based on hundreds of hours of audio recordings left by actor Marlon Brando, as well as James Spinney and Pete Middleton’s Notes on Blindness, a doc about theologian John Hull’s audio diary of his transition into blindness, which is also bowing at Sundance.

“The great thing about listening to an audio recording is you really have to tune in to the words. Especially [if] it’s in a foreign language, you’re reading the text and it also leaves a lot to your imagination in terms of what’s going on in that room,” says Adam, adding that Choi and Shin may have made the tapes, too, for a potential film or series of their own.

“Although we had a lot of great archive, we had very little to represent the actual moment as the story was happening and that was what was really exciting for us, when we discovered these recordings, that we could actually take people into the moment as it was happening between our three characters,” he adds.

the lovers and the despot

Choi Eun-hee, Shin Sang-ok

In addition to audio, Lovers offers a trove of archival material from an iconic period in Korea’s history, and an astonishing glimpse into the mechanisms of Kim Jong-il’s regime.

“Because they were used as essentially a piece of propaganda, [Kim] wanted to showcase them to the rest of the world, so he often had a photographer following them around and taking photos and he would give them the photographs,” Cannan says.

Other types of archive used include 16 mm material shot by an East German filmmaking team invited to North Korea when Shin and Choi were there, as well as other footage shot by a Polish director and an array of North Korean propaganda videos – showing, for example, the domestic military presence and the public grieving for Kim Jong-il in 2011. The doc was edited by Jim Hession, whose credits include Rich Hill and Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present.

Reflecting on the doc’s strong archival backbone, the filmmakers say the real credit goes to Shin and Choi.

“Obviously they are trained with storytelling, but the tapes alongside the photos and their films they smuggled out of North Korea, they did it for a possible future film,” says Cannan. “I think they wanted to make a film of their own story or a TV series.”

  • The Lovers and the Despot next screens today (January 26) at 6 p.m. MST at Broadway Centre Cinema 6. For further screening info, please click here
About The Author
Andrew Tracy joined Realscreen as associate editor in 2021, following 17 years as managing editor of the award-winning international film magazine Cinema Scope. From 2010 to 2020 he also held the position of senior editor at the Toronto International Film Festival, where he oversaw the flagship publication for the organization’s year-round Cinematheque programming and edited its first original monograph in a decade, Steve Gravestock’s A History of Icelandic Film. He was a scriptwriter and consultant on the first season of the Vice TV series The Vice Guide to Film, and his writing and reporting have been featured in such outlets as Cinema Scope, Reverse Shot, Sight & Sound, Cineaste, Film Comment, MUBI Notebook, POV, and Montage.