'The Lovers and the Despot' Tells a Story Stranger Than Fiction

The documentary playing MAMI humanises Kim Jong-il and shows the 'despot' as someone trapped in a game he didn’t fully understand.

Quite early in The Lovers and the Despot, a documentary playing in the world cinema section of the 18th Mumbai Film Festival, something unusual happens – we hear the voice of Kim Jong-il, the second supreme leader of North Korea. Jong-il sounds agitated, he also sounds annoyed, firing off a bunch of questions: “Why do all of our films have the same ideological plots? There’s nothing new about them. Why are there so many crying scenes? This isn’t a funeral. Why do our films not get selected to film festivals? South Korean films are much better.” Jong-il says these lines as a matter of fact, without a shred of irony, making this scene both bizarre and funny and had his voice not been recorded, not been part of a documentary, we would have dismissed it as fictional.

Later, in the documentary, we learn that Jong-il wanted North Korean films to be among the best in the world. But how could he, you wonder, when his regime had denied the world to his countrymen? These moments in the documentary are remarkable because they humanise Jong-il, telling us that he wasn’t very different from us, that he too could be agitated, insecure and stupid.

In the late 1970s, Jong-il was fascinated by the movies of Shin Films, a production house helmed by the famous South Korean director, Shin Sang-ok, who often worked with his ex-wife, the actress Choi Eun-hee. Jong-il, in fact, was so impressed by their work that he did something that only he could have – he kidnapped Sang-ok and Eun-hee so they could make movies in and about North Korea. A well-known filmmaker became a captive; a well-known dictator became a film producer. The Lovers and the Despot’s story is so incredible, off-kilter and funny that it needs no dramatic license, reaffirming what we’ve always known: no story can be more compelling and strange than a real-life one. And the filmmakers, Ross Adam and Robert Cannan, perhaps know this, because their documentary is a faithful linear reconstruction of the events (mainly through interviews, archival footage, photos and newspaper clippings), from the 1970s, when Sang-ok and Eun-hee were kidnapped, to the mid-1980s, when they finally managed to escape.


The Lovers and the Despot barely has any dull moments; Adam and Cannan stick to the basics, interviewing an eclectic set of people: Eun-hee, her children, some South Korean film critics, an official in the US embassy, and even, a close associate of Jong-il. From such disparate figures involved in Sang-ok and Eun-hee’s story, at different times, emerges a documentary, which, although chronologically linear and straightforward, is quite engaging. North Korea still remains a place we know very little about, a country whose inner-mechanics is shrouded in secrecy, whose people still live in fear and ignorance, living a life devoid of choice and freedom, sharing a delusion foisted on them decades ago. The Lovers and the Despot shows, quite expertly, how it feels and what it means, to live in such a regime. For the first few years in North Korea, Eun-hee did what she was told, “like a dog”. She was also given a few “communist books” to read. Eun-hee tagged along, pretending the new life didn’t bother her. “There’s acting for films, and then there’s acting for life,” she says in the documentary. And it’s this constant intersection between life and cinema that really informs The Lovers and the Despot and makes it powerful and evocative.


A still from the documentary.

It’s difficult to make this story up. Two film professionals acting in a world that is more ‘unreal’ than cinema, where films forge friendship, advance a dictator’s agenda, instill hope. When Sang-ok is held captive in North Korea, he, in his initial months, thinks of orchestrating an escape as shown in the movie, well, The Great Escape. Jong-il tells Sang-ok to praise North Korea and belittle South Korea, in front of reporters. But, above all, this film is a fascinating portrait of a “young boy who wasn’t allowed to play with other children”, who, although lived in a “huge house” and had “many toys” to play with, was essentially friendless: Jong-il. At one point in documentary, we’re told that Jong-il was a huge film-buff, and that he had a projector in every room of his house—someone who thought of himself as an “artiste”. And in that rare moment, you see Jong-il — a dictator, an abuser of human rights — as a person, as someone who perhaps wanted to pursue a career in the arts, but wasn’t allowed to, for he had to follow his father’s footsteps.

Oppression breeds oppression, The Lovers and the Despot seems to suggest, and that human beings have a shocking predisposition to both dominate and be dominated. The Lovers and the Despot is not, as its title suggests, just about a “despot”; it’s also about someone trapped in a game he didn’t fully understand.

The Lovers and the Despot will be screened at PVR ECX on October 23 (10.30 am) and Regal on October 24 (8.30 pm).

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