Screenprism spoke with directors Robert Cannan and Ross Adam about their new documentary The Lovers & The Despot, which attempts to find the truth behind the story of South Korean filmmaker Shin Sang-ok and actress Choi Eun-hee, who fell in love in 1950s post-war Korea. In the 70s, after a series of successful films, Choi was kidnapped by North Korean agents. In search of Choi, Shin was also kidnapped, and Kim Jong-Il declared them his personal filmmakers. After making 17 films for the dictator, Choi and Shin plotted their escape.
We asked the directors about the process behind this deep dive into one of Korea’s biggest scandals.
Screenprism: There’s a lot of archive footage in the movie and recordings, what was the process of acquiring that like? Was there anything you wanted to get that you couldn’t?
Robert Cannan: Well, it was a very long process, to get everything you see in the film. We didn’t know this archive existed when we started so a lot of it was a process of discovery but it also - some of it was not easy to obtain. For instance, the footage of Kim Jong-Il is North Korean-produced propaganda. And you can see some of that on YouTube, but to get any of it in half-decent quality, we knew we had to find a roundabout way to actually get it from North Korea. Although we can’t fully go into detail on how we did that, it took a while and was a bit of a close call. The tape recordings of Kim Jong-Il, we always knew that they had recorded [Shin’s] conversations with him, and we had read some excerpts of the transcript of that. So we knew it was a piece of key evidence for them, convincing the CIA and getting asylum in the US. What we didn’t know was that Shin Films still had all these many hours of recordings of other conversations they had with him.
There were all kinds of conversations - trivial production conversations - that become of interest simply because of context. These are recordings of a dictator speaking to abductees about filmmaking.
Ross Adam: There’s one fascinating phone call which we tried to fit into the end of the film but may feature as a kind of extra that Shin and Choi recieved in the 1990s once they were working in Hollywood from Kim’s right hand man, also the minister of film. He was doing a temperature read to see if they might want to come back to North Korea.
Screenprism: What’s your favorite Shin Films picture?
RC: I might have to say A Flower in Hell. It’s a noiry 50s film that you see clips from throughout the film. It’s got a real charm to it, some of the film feels almost documentary-style, but it’s got a real noir flavor. It’s a fun film - well made. Though of course he made a really diverse range of films through different periods.
Screenprism: Did those films influence the style of the film you wanted to make?
RC: I think that naturally because we are using excerpts from his films, that aesthetic is definitely woven into the visual fabric of the film.I wouldn’t say out and out it affected the way we shot anything. We knew we wanted all the interviews to be lit with an element of noir. The archive footage was what it was and our reconstructions had to fit somewhere between those two. We decided, partially because of budgetary concerns, partially the nature of the film, we couldn’t shoot in an overtly stylized way for the reconstructions. But certainly his films make up some of the theme.
Screenprism: Can you talk about any ethical conflicts you had making this project?
RC: We had to be careful in what we implied about the truth of the story, particularly to what extent Shin was kidnapped or went willingly because it’s still a very contentious issue in South Korea. t’s illegal for a South Korean to have anything to do with North Korea, politically. Even though Shin is no longer around, Choi and potentially the family could be in trouble. The official investigation was opened back up again, though of course we never thought it would really go that far. Our interest was in telling the truth, and I think we got as far as we can go in terms of finding the best evidence. But we had to be mindful that the way we portrayed them and their story could have ramifications in Korea today.
We had to make sure that we balanced that, being as objective as we could be, making sure that nobody thought we were being partial to Shin or Choi. There’s a lot of dissent about their story out there, and we had to try to be as fair as possible
RA: I suppose you could say there was an ethical question in, as we mentioned before, getting the archive footage from North Korea, because in a roundabout way, we had to pay for that, but in the end we decided it was too important to the film to have that archive, it was essential. We needed the North Korean propaganda, it was essential.
Screenprism: I’m sure as directors you two can relate to the feeling that you’re getting studio notes from an evil dictator, but Shin lived that reality. To what extent did you relate to his struggle as filmmakers?
RC: When you know what filmmaking is like, you know we do find ourselves sympathetic to Shin. When you get into the financing process sometimes, it can be a long and arduous process. At many points it can seem like it’s going to all fall through, and you’re left with nothing. So I think that helped, maybe an understanding of why he might have gone willingly. Or more relevant to our film, having a totalitarian dictator finance your films. We sympathize with that. I think that’s what drew us to the story. He’s deciding if he should stay or go, and I think that would resonate with any filmmaker.