There is a romance at the heart of “The Lovers and the Despot” – actually, two, if you count the one between South Korean director Shin Sang-ok and his leading lady Choi Eun-hee, whom he romanced over black bean noodles after asking her to star in one of his movies. However, Choi resigned herself to being the second great love in Shin’s life, knowing that he was completely infatuated with making films. Of course, love causes you to do crazy things and as directors Ross Adam and Rob Canaan discovered, there are likely few stranger love stories than the triangle that develops between Shin, Choi and celluloid that eventually becomes a quadrangle when the late North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il abducted Choi, then Shin to make films across the border steeped in nationalist themes to rival those of his southern — and dare to dream, Hollywood — counterparts.
It would be fascinating enough to simply follow Shin and Choi, who at 89 is still alive to tell the bizarre story in vivid detail, throughout their ordeal, but Adam and Canaan are onto something even bigger with secret recordings the couple made of Kim Jong-il during their interactions with him, offering up rare insight into what the totalitarian ruler was like and shedding light on life in North Korea, not only through the recollections of Choi and others, but through clips of Shin’s films. A tale of obsession on the part of Shin, who proves he will do anything to make movies, “The Lovers and the Despot” is also an unusual celebration of why they’re so important, no matter how misguided the end, reflecting the cultural climate they were made in and preserving history in a way no other medium can. By tracking every wild twist and turn, Adam and Canaan have also made a film for the ages and as it rolls out into American theaters, the British filmmakers took a moment to talk about how they learned of Shin and Choi, discovering a treasure trove of Kim Jong-il recordings and their desire for the film to play North Korea.
Rob Cannan: We’re longtime friends and we’re interested in crazy stories, but it was only when we met up and we were bouncing ideas around that we both struck upon this and we’re like, “Well, why is there not a great film out there about this?” We started to do some investigating and [after seeing] there was nothing out there, we just decided to take a leap and contact Choi Eun-hee and the Shin Films Foundation. From there, it snowballed.
Obviously, it’s a great story in its own right and tales of kidnap and this kind of love story are naturally attractive to most people. But it’s also about a filmmaker [entering into] a Faustian pact, to get everything you ever wanted and that was what was personally attractive to us, especially now having made the film and realizing how hard to is to make films.
Ross Adam: We were at university together and we love cinema – we spent a lot of time just watching movies. And for people who love cinema to come across a crazy story that’s set in the world of cinema and about a film director, it just seemed to be the story that has everything.
This story came as a complete surprise to me, but you’ve said you had competition to be the first to tell it. Is this actually more well-known in Asia?
Rob Cannan: Particularly in Korea and Japan, it’s very well known and it was a surprise to us really how little known it was in the West, considering when they first escaped and went to America, it did break [into the news cycle] in but then for whatever reason the story just disappeared from the mainstream media. Luckily, some articles and little pieces were lurking around somewhere and that’s how we came across the story initially.
We’d been surprised that no one had made the film, but once we started speaking to Choi and her family, we realized perhaps why. The story is well known but also so controversial there that they were very protective over their portrayal and what kind of story we wanted to tell. It took a long time to convince them to trust us.
Rob Cannan: Harrod’s teas and jams. We took lots of fine presents over, beautifully wrapped, which we read was a very important thing in Korean culture. But really, it was a gradual process of convincing them that we were out to tell a good story and approach the story objectively. [Choi] also liked the fact that we saw a love story in there as well as a kidnap story. We weren’t just interested in Kim Jong-il. We were interested in the movies that they’d made and this crazy love story.
Was it tricky to figure out the structure of this? You cleverly work backwards at first.
Rob Cannan: We always had a rough structure because we’d obviously read his accounts and we knew the story pretty well. The main difficulty was actually finding the pieces of the puzzle. It’s a drama and we were dependent on the archival [footage] that comes in and in particular, we had a problem in depicting our Shin character in the story. We had a Choi Eun-hee interview and we even had some Kim Jong-il footage, and we had some of Shin’s tape recordings, but we hadn’t got anything apart some TV interviews which really weren’t going to work in terms of the style and the mood of our film. Quite late in the production process, but fortuitously for us, we got hold of some tape recordings, in particular one where Shin Sang-ok essentially narrates his whole story secretly whilst captive in North Korea. That really enabled us to make the film we wanted to make.
Choi describes Shin as not being a particularly emotional man, but it seems clever on your part to show how expressive he could be in his films. Was interesting to find clips that would narrate his story from the movies he actually made?
Rob Cannan: Completely, because he seemed to be someone who lived through his moviemaking. He was obsessed by films, and he just could not stop making films. It was like his life force, which is why once that ability was taken away from him a lot of people in South Korea say, “Well, of course he’d take up an offer from North Korea,” because he just couldn’t live without making films. Once we knew early on how many films he made and we started watching them, we had high hopes that lots of aspects of the films would be able to stand in for bits of this story. Obviously, Choi is there on screen as a younger actress and we could still use those for emotional beats in her story, but Shin is there too and we saw how he perhaps was projecting parts of his ego onto the male protagonist in the films, so we wanted to find characters and moments in the film that could reflect parts of his story too.
Rob Cannan: They were available in the sense that we could view them various ways, but they weren’t available in any good quality. The difficulty was sourcing prints and trying to get the requisite quality for the film we wanted to tell. It’s a cinematic film, so we really wanted to do justice to it.
It’s such an eclectic group of people you interview. Did you find one person led to another or did you start out casting a pretty wide net?
Rob Cannan: A bit of both, really. Much like the archival [footage], it took a number of years to piece together all of those people. At some stages, we shot quite a few interviews which didn’t make it into the film, sometimes because we would then find someone who was even more appropriate for telling an aspect of the story. It was quite an extensive process and some of the people would come to us through meeting other people connected to the story, and in some cases we put out bulletins on retirement boards and all those kinds of things until we found those people.
Was there anything that came up that really changed the course of this film?
Rob Cannan: We had hoped that Shin might have said something somewhere that would speak to the Faustian pact elements that attracted us to the film in the first place and we found it in the depths of these tape recordings. This wasn’t made obvious to us by Shin Films. They had these tapes, but they didn’t mention at all that somewhere on these tapes was Shin actually in this moral quandary wondering, “Should I stay in North Korea? Should I go? He’s given me everything, this dictator.” That was a surprise to us that this was available for us to use.
We knew about the existence of the recording of the first meeting [Shin and Choi] have after they’ve been reunited with Kim Jong-il. We had read translations of excerpts from that tape and the bits of conversation which we knew had been used as key evidence to persuade the CIA and the Korean CIA that Kim Jong-il had ordered their kidnap. And we knew that those would play a crucial role in the film, but because we only knew of that one meeting, we just thought that would perhaps appear in the film at the point where they meet and then maybe again at the point where they escape and they’re trying to get asylum in America.
What we didn’t know was that there were many [more] hours of other conversations recorded that we would be able to use those to chart the development of their relationship with Kim Jong-il while they were there. They didn’t change the story, but they changed how well we were able to tell it and really take people really into the moment of that unfolding relationship.
Rob Cannan: We hadn’t really thought about that too much until “The Interview” situation, but our hope is that [not only] our film has not quite got that level of attention, but also it’s a story that’s in the past. “The Interview” was, maybe deliberately, setting out to offend Kim Jong-un and we’re not setting out to offend. Our story’s about his father who’s no longer around and probably much less relevant to him and we’re telling as truthful a story as we can. In some senses, it’s not all bad. We don’t really know how North Korea could really dispute anything in the film, because it is archival after all.
Ross Adam: We had very positive feedback [in general]. In Sundance and Berlin, we had full houses and conversationally, people are interested in North Korea and it’s obviously a very unusual story, so we get a lot of follow up questions.
Rob Cannan: We would love to be able to play it to a North Korean audience and see what they think, but that’s probably a long way off.