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Choi Eun-hee and Shin Sang-ok in The Lovers and the Despot. (Magnolia Pictures)
Choi Eun-hee and Shin Sang-ok in The Lovers and the Despot. (Magnolia Pictures)

REVIEW

The Lovers and the Despot: Epic love story meets espionage thriller Add to ...

  • Directed by Rob Cannan and Ross Adam
  • Written by Rob Cannan and Ross Adam
  • Starring Choi Eun-hee, Michael Yi, Shin Jeong-kyun, Shin Myung-yim
  • Year 2016
  • Country U.K.
  • Language English

“There’s acting for films. Then there’s acting for life.” So says Choi Eun-hee, the South Korean actress who, with her filmmaking former husband Shin Sang-ok, were kidnapped in 1978 under the orders of the cinema-loving, later North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-il.

It’s a fantastically bonkers story told excitedly in The Lovers and the Despot, a stranger-than-fiction yarn that would make a hell of an opera. Employing film clips, dramatic recreations, original interviews with Choi (Shin died in 2006) and ultrarare audio tapes of the reclusive “Dear Leader,” the documentarians Rob Cannan and Ross Adam compellingly couple an epic love story with an international espionage thriller.

It’s presented with a quirkiness that is entertaining but problematic when it comes to tone: North Koreans under Kim’s regime suffered greatly, and yet the film doesn’t really present the context. We see crowds of mourners exhibiting theatrical grief upon Kim’s death in 2011. They overacted as if their lives depended on it, and perhaps that was exactly the case.

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