In The Lovers and the Despot, Ross Adam and Robert Cannan recount the bizarre and fantastic story of Shin Sang-ok and Choi Eun-hee, two darlings of the South Korean film industry kidnapped by Kim-Jong-il to make North Korea a leader in world cinema. CineVue’s Maximilian Von Thun spoke to the directorial duo about the making of the film, its unsolved mysteries, and the realities of life in North Korea.
Maximilian Von Thun: Let’s start off by talking about those incredible tapes: How did you get hold of them, and how were you allowed to use them in the film? Was there more fascinating material you weren’t able to include?
Ross Adam & Robert Cannan: To start with, we were only aware of one tape, which was a recording of Kim Jong-il confessing the kidnappings. We only learned around six months before the end that there were more, which as you can imagine changed our plans quite a bit! Initially we approached the CIA and asked them for transcripts, as we knew they had gone through the tapes in detail but they refused to even acknowledge their existence, because the case is still classified. So we went and got them from Choi herself, untranslated and untranscribed. After getting them all translated – which was costly because Kim had a very specific accent and spoke incredibly fast – we discovered all kinds of conversations between Kim, Shin and Choi.
Some of it is quite amusing, such as talk about getting their films into lots of festivals and getting Alain Delon to act in them. But in the end, choosing what to include was relatively simple: everything had to either move the story forward, paint the characters or deepen the relationship between Shin and Kim. So a lot of that peripheral material didn’t get included.
MVT: While it’s great that Choi gave you permission to make a film about her and Shin’s story, she seems quite guarded when she is being interviewed, especially when it comes to her relationship with Shin. Do you feel she kept an important part of the story from you?
RA/RC: We wouldn’t say she kept the story from us. But we do know what you mean about Shin – she found it hard to think back to the time of his affair [with another actress], and indeed she may have never forgiven him if not for the extreme circumstances of their reunion [in North Korea, after Shin had been imprisoned and tortured]. While we initially thought she was scared of criticising Kim Jong-il or North Korea, as time went on we saw that this was more a case of Stockholm syndrome. She – and you see this in the film – felt guilty when she spoke of their escape. That was a big surprise to us, but it seems that in the time she spent with Kim in captivity, she warmed to him and even empathised with him. She describes him as charming, as a frustrated artist who wasn’t actually going to harm her.
MVT: Is that tied to the comfortable environment Kim eventually placed both of them into?
RA/RC: Both of them loved filmmaking, and they were given incredible opportunities and treated like celebrities there. So despite the circumstances, they were grateful for that. But we would bring it back to the Stockholm syndrome idea. Choi didn’t have many people to interact with except Kim, and she may have even credited him for reuniting her and Shin. Furthermore, she didn’t have any other option but to survive. Like much of the populace, she came to believe in the performance – it’s often easier to live a lie than continuously challenge it. Something you notice in the tapes is how intelligent and manipulative Kim was; he knew how to get what he wanted. He manipulated Choi to give him what he wanted, and bathed her in a certain degree of luxury. But there was always a nasty threat of violence beneath the surface.
MVT: Given the doubts about the veracity of Shin’s account of his kidnapping that exist, why did you choose not to explore that in greater depth in the film?
RA/RC: We did interview people who were skeptical, but unfortunately it’s mostly hearsay; we didn’t see the advantage of including pure speculation about Shin. We did the best we could to find the most concrete evidence out there, but there’s no getting around the fact that he was the only known witness to his own kidnapping. We included a few details from intelligence agencies and the Hong Kong detective who worked on the case, but overall we wanted to leave it up to the audience to decide what the truth is.
MVT: What’s your gut feeling?
RA/RC: It evolved as we made the film, a process we approached with an open mind. The story did seem fantastic to us, so had our doubts, but what you hear Kim say on tape [that he organised the kidnapping] suggests there was some coercion at the very least. We heard rumours about advance contact between Shin and Kim, but found it too damning to include without any proof. Whether we entirely believe Shin’s action movie-like account of his kidnapping is another thing – ultimately we’ll never know for sure.
MVT: Have you seen any of Shin’s North Korean films? What are they like?
RA/RC: We’ve seen some that were smuggled out of the country, and his Godzilla rip-off Pulgasari was actually released in Japan and America. But it’s hard for us to see them outside of the context in which they were shot, so we can’t really vouch for their quality. They do they have a certain charm to them, but when it comes down to it we prefer his South Korean work. In many ways, the context is more fascinating than the films themselves. Shin and Choi produced the first kiss in North Korean cinema, and the songs from their musicals were hummed and whistled across the country. There’s something amazing about the power that cinema can have, even in a country like North Korea.
Shin’s North Korea films weren’t overtly propagandistic, and he had more freedom than you might expect. His films were more sophisticated than anything North Koreans had ever seen before, and several defectors we spoke to described them as their first real experience of “entertainment”. Before that, films had been made purely for ideological instruction. That isn’t to say that Shin could make films that went against the country’s values. But for the first time in North Korean film history, these were stories about real individuals.
MVT: How has making this film changed your perspective on the enigma of Kim Jong-il and North Korea?
RA/RC: We’ve definitely deepened our understanding – by doing research and speaking to defectors – of Kim Jong-il as a man. It’s led to a morbid appreciation of the bizarre; that a man with such a warped psychology could define his nation and affect so many people. He’s not a dictator who grabbed power, like Saddam Hussein or even Kim’s father Kim Il-sung. Kim Jong-il was groomed for power, which is a rather different situation. So we understand what makes him unique now. We’ve also learned a lot by meeting North Koreans and hearing their personal stories. People are indoctrinated at such an early age that – however intelligent or good a person is – he or she cannot understand how pervading the propaganda is.
It’s almost a miracle to have the kind of awakening defectors have; usually it’s a very specific event that bursts the bubble of the lie they are living. Hopefully it’s not a facile comparison, but North Korea might stand as a warning to the world of the dangers of getting caught up in make-believe narratives. You can obviously make parallels with what happened recently in the UK [Brexit], thought it isn’t quite that simple. And you can look at the media landscape that has taken shape in America, a free society society that through pure sensationalism has gotten itself into some very dark places. North Korea isn’t quite the total anomaly people think it is – societies can quite easily slip into these patterns.