THE LOVERS & THE DESPOT: A Documentary Outshined By Its Subject

When we think of documentaries about North Korea, it is usually with an eye toward illuminating what to this day remains cloaked in self-imposed mystery. As it has always been an excessively reclusive nation, this state of unknowing has been the primary trait most of the West associates with the DPRK.

As a young country, that means most of its brief history is known only to itself, and even then there are probably only a few at the government’s upper echelons that are privy to details not disseminated to a populace fed on propaganda. So when the opportunity comes to make a documentary about events decades in the isolated state’s past, it is something about which to stand up and take note.

However, The Lovers & The Despot, earning our attention with the promise of an unparalleled and untold story, doesn’t do much with that opportunity. Instead, it employs a template approach utilizing primarily talking heads and stock footage to dutifully convey the details of its remarkable subject, but little more. Rushing us through certain moments or eras and dwelling on others, the film sometimes feels like a friend recounting to us a documentary she saw; accurate in its retelling but lacking the cinematic element of the film itself.

Mired in Narrative

The Lovers & the Despot‘s story is that of Choi Eun-hee and Shin Sang-ok, married luminaries of the South Korean film industry, who in the 70s were kidnapped by their authoritarian counterparts to the north. After the necessary reeducation, the leader in waiting, Kim Jong-Il, personally sent them to work towards fulfilling his dream on bring the North Korean film industry to worldwide prominence.

The Lovers & The Despot: When a Documentary Is Outshined By Its Subject
source: Magnolia Pictures

The film seems confused on what context to provide, starting with a caption about the Korean war and the splitting of the peninsula at the DMZ, something of which I would expect someone seeing the film (and most people) to be well aware. This might be construed as nitpicking, but I mention it because it is a succinct microcosm of the film’s central flaw, an emphasis on the communication of facts over the causes and consequences of them. Throughout the film emotional and societal context was noticeably lacking, as it almost felt as if the directors were as eager to get to the couple’s daring escape as Choi and Shin were themselves.

As Shin has since passed, the film relies heavily on Choi for exposition, the ominous score behind her adding a sinister vibe that belies the charming elderly woman who is giving us her personal history. The directors, Ross Adam and Ryan Cannan frequently utilize narrative tropes like this in an attempt to play up the drama, which causes their work to be largely bereft of understatement that might have otherwise balanced out this outlandish tale.

Their over-reliance on stock footage is particularly draining. Selecting clips from Shin and Choi’s films to illustrate the narrative, what was probably intended as a playful attempt to transport us to the years in which the story takes place and provide visual references for the lengthy tale end up feeling incongruous with the tone of the story. It was as if the subject and the form employed to illuminate it were at odds with one another.

The Lovers & The Despot: When a Documentary Is Outshined By Its Subject
source: Magnolia Pictures

Where the film does succeed is when it’s able to liberate itself from stock footage overload and breathe a bit, such as in the sequences where they simply play cassettes with surreptitious recordings of Kim Jong-Il. In the tapes, the notoriously diminutive dictator talks about himself and his dominion with a degree of self-deprecation worthy of Woody Allen.

A noted cinephile, he complains that North Korean films all have boring ideological plots and too many crying scenes. He wants his films to play in festivals, and even conceded that the South Korean industry was in college while they were in “nursery school” as far as film technology. Without any additional commentary or stock footage, these moments are powerful in their simplicity, and the significance of the recordings is apparent without any additional aesthetic elements to heighten the stakes.

As I’ve mentioned and as the film makes clear in its opening minutes, the couple eventually managed to escape the grip of Kim Jong-Il. In recounting being welcomed to the West via the US, Choi breaks down, giving the film arguably its sole authentic moment, where the veneer of the interviewee is successfully stripped and the audience is invited to relate to the subject on screen. By allowing Choi to break from her dutiful recounting and be overcome by a show of emotion brought me right back into the story that had this point had grown stale in its formality.

The Lovers & The Despot: When a Documentary Is Outshined By Its Subject
source: Magnolia Pictures

The film could have benefited greatly from wrestling itself away from its boilerplate narrative approach to a more contemplative place that might allow for greater reflection from these figures decades removed from the incidents at play. Reducing her role to that of reporter effectively strips her unquestionable significance to the film.

What Might Have Been

One might consider it unduly harsh to call a film out for being merely competent, but in the case of The Lovers & the Despot I find it necessary due to the fantastic nature of the source material. There is a great documentary here somewhere, which makes it all the more frustrating to sit through a film that does just enough.

I first heard about this story about a little over a year ago when it was featured on “This American Life”. The 20-minute segment was riveting and revealed aspects of the story as it went along, maintaining some of its mystery, especially the reveal of the secret recordings. The interview conducted was not with Choi but with author Paul Fischer, who wrote a book on this story. The producer of the piece, Nancy Updike, frequently asks questions and interjects with her impressions, something somewhat verboten in contemporary documentaries but par for the course in audio reportage. Using only sound, it really painted a picture.

While objectivity is the aspiration of many documentaries, the story of The Lovers & the Despot, like most things North Korean, is tinged with objective absurdity. Not taking the time to stop and reflect on the ludicrous circumstances and their implications is to do this remarkable story a disservice. By electing for an authoritative over an emotional approach, The Lovers & the Despot can’t help but feel like a missed opportunity, a pale image of the film it could have been.

What is a documentary’s responsibility to go beyond mere reportage? OR Do you think it’s necessary for a documentary to be self-aware?

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