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Film Review

The Lovers and the Despot

Is there another country like North Korea, with such a bizarre, repressive regime, one in which the supreme leader holds the power of life and death over millions? Even China, at the height of the Cultural Revolution, did not exert this degree of control and regimentation. Korea has a sad history: the Japanese forcibly annexed the country in 1910 and began a 35 year period of harsh rule, including unceasing attempts to stamp out Korean culture. A divided Korea was then created at the end of WW II, as the Japanese withdrew. Both nations were initially ruled by military dictatorships when North Korea, supported by Mao's China, invaded the South in 1950. The Korean War raged for three years. The Chinese intervened with massive numbers of troops. The US lost 54,000 men supporting the South, where at least half a million South Korean Army troops and twice that number of civilians died in the conflict. A ceasefire was finally arranged in 1953 dividing the country at the 38th parallel, but a peace treaty was never concluded due to Chinese objections. The border between North and South remains today the most heavily fortified and guarded in the world. The US keeps about 28,000 troops there. Recently North Korea's development of nuclear weapons has put it much in the news because of the erratic, provocative nature of the government.

Three generations of dictators have ruled North Korea. The first, Kim Il-sung (d. 1994), his son, Kim Jong-il (d. 2011), and now his grandson, Kim Jong-un. (As in many Asian countries, family names precede) All three men have been highly secretive. Little is known about their personal lives because very few are allowed to visit and all visits are tightly supervised. One of the few sources of information has been defectors, who usually go to South Korea. Unsuccessful attempts at escape are met with long prison terms, and for officials and military personnel, execution. Repression is extreme, even Orwellian, and the Kims have created an extreme personality cult. Many North Koreans consider them divinities. Despite recent periods of widespread famine, senior government and military officials live well. More worrisome is that North Korea has been deliberatively provocative, including shelling South Korean islands, capturing South Korean fishing boats, and sending undercover agents south. Whatever his dislike of the West, Kim Jong-il was passionate and informed about Western films, with a library of some 15,000 films.

In 1978, two well known South Korean movie figures, married to each other, disappeared. The first was Choi Eun-hee, possibly Korea's most famous actress. Months later, Shin Sang-ok, her husband, an equally celebrated Korean director, also disappeared. Their two children, both then in their teens, knew nothing. Rumors circulated that the two had both been kidnapped and taken north, although this seemed bizarre even by North Korean standards. Then, years later, they were seen in North Korea where they began making films, a few of which made it to the West. Reporters interviewed Choi and Shin, who insisted that they had not been kidnapped and expressed appreciation for Kim's support of their film making. Finally, in 1986, they escaped to the West and the entire story became known. Ross Adam and Rob Cannan, writers and producers, have made what is essentially a Cold War thriller, The Lovers and the Despot, which tells a story so outlandish it defies belief.

The Lovers and The Despot uses archival footage, re-creations and interviews with Choi and her children (Shin died in 2006), as well as interviews with various intelligence figures, all to create an engrossing look at an incredible story. A relatively short film, it fills seemingly every one of its 94 minutes with astonishing revelations. The interviews are amazing; particularly those with South Korean and American intelligence agents. Choi's interviews provide the backbone of the film. Despite the directors' overuse of reenactments, many of which are confusing and usually unnecessary, and a few too many clips of Shin's South Korean films, Adam and Cannan have made a sensational film. Archival footage, taken in North Korea, is simply astonishing, particularly scenes of hundred of thousands of men and women, all crying hysterically and pounding their chests, in grief during the funeral procession for Kim Il-sung. Those who were felt not to be sincere simply disappeared. Other footage shows enormous numbers of people performing highly choreographed, synchronized displays by holding up large sheets of colored cardboard.

Choi had secretly taped many hours of conversations with Kim Jong-il, some of which are played here. One tape features Kim openly admitting that he had Choi and Shin kidnapped. Western intelligence had never actually heard Kim's voice but concluded that the tapes were genuine. No wonder that a Kim finger on the nuclear button is the source of nightmares. This is a tremendous film that you won't soon forget. Just opened at the Clay Theater and unfortunately doesn't seem to be playing anywhere else in the Bay Area.

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