Rob Cannan was stuck in London traffic as my phone interview time with him and his filmmaker partner, Ross Adam began, but Adam did a terrific job doing double-duty, as it were, talking about their stranger-than-fiction documentary, THE LOVERS AND THE DESPOT.
The two spent years pursuing the movie rights to one of the most unbelievable true stories of modern times. That would be the kidnapping by North Korea’s Kim Jung-il of South Korea’s filmmaker Shin Sang-ok and his estranged wife, actress Choi Eun-hee. The purpose of which was to fulfill Kim’s vision a world-class cinema industry in North Korea. Shin is dead, and Choi has been reluctant to speak about her experience, particularly in light of the fact that traveling to North Korea, even against one’s will, is a criminally prosecutable offence in South Korea.
It was a lively conversation, from what it was like to finally secure Choi’s cooperation, to what the translator didn’t need to tell them about what Choi was saying in her interview sessions, to the decision to give a more rounded portrait of Kim Jung-il that also didn’t diminish the suffering he’s inflicted on his people, At the end, Cannan Skyped in from the traffic jam to say hi, showing the dedication that is the true spirit of a documentarian.
THE LOVERS AND THE DESPOT is a doc about kidnapping, intrigue, and the power of cinema. How Shin and Choi got to North Korea is the stuff of the best espionage thrillers, as is the speculation that one of them might have gone willingly. Told through film clips of Shin, who is now dead, and interviews with his family, friends, and a few government agents, it’s a fascinating story about the intersections of art and politics featuring recordings that may or may not be of Kim himself. Most intriguing, though, is the interview with Choi, who talks with great passion about her marriage to Shin, which fell apart, only to be reinvigorated by their captivity in the north.