DVD Movie Review: The Lovers & The Despot

By Thom Compton 03.02.2018

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The Lovers & The Despot (UK Rating: PG)

For much of the world, North Korea is a mysterious and scary place. While the media feeds people information about tremendous human rights violations and terrifying government control, the pictures shown are often a highlight of a country that seems almost otherworldly. It's painted as a steadfast regime that glorifies missiles run by a man who, according to his nation of followers, may not use the bathroom or have a proper birthday. The Lovers & The Despot paints a very different portrait of the country. On one hand, it's still a totalitarian nightmare for many who reside there. However, it's also a country many defect to, which makes one wonder, what is the benefit of joining the North? For South Korean actress Choi Eun-hee and director Shin Shang-ok, it's hard telling, for sure.

The official story is that these two were kidnapped at the request of former dictator, Kim Jong-Il. Story has it, Jong-Il was a cinephile who felt that North Korea didn't have the prowess much of the rest of the world had when it came to the silver screen. Shin had, at one point, been the biggest filmmaker in South Korea, and he was even admired by his peers around the world. Choi, on the other hand, was South Korea's Marilyn Monroe, a widely loved and sought-after actress. It didn't help that they also happened to be married to one another.

The Lovers & The Despot does a good job framing the kidnapping, and the effect it had on not only the two kidnapped, but also their loved ones. It also gives a decent look into the conflicts brewing on the Korean peninsula at the time; something many people may not be familiar with. Unfortunately, the film moves beyond a basic documentary, the kind you might see at 2am on cable on The Discovery Channel. To put it a better way, it really doesn't explain things well enough to be as interesting as the subject matter it's covering.

One of the biggest issues is that, till this day, there is doubt that Shin was actually kidnapped, and the film does nothing to alleviate that concern. Shin spends a tremendous amount of the time gushing over Jung-Il, as does Choi. Choi is the only one of the three still alive, and much of her description of Jung-Il, and North Korea for that matter, is done in a way that seems to contradict the idea of a tyrant. The film does delve a bit into Jung-Il, and even his father, Kim Il-Sung's, personalities, but it doesn't make it any clearer whether or not Choi feared the tyrant, or just the regime around him.

Of course, it's not fair to attack the film for the possible long-term mental effects of what Choi and Shin went through, and in no way is that last paragraph meant to be a guilty verdict against them. These sorts of things leave lasting scars on people that can seem all too foreign to those who haven't experienced them. The purpose of addressing this is to point out that the film doesn't do a good job framing the emotions and motivations of these two people. Shin is only really heard through tape recordings, a vast majority of which make it sound like he appreciates the opportunity to really stretch his artistic visions in North Korea. This results in Shin sounding like a mad man for a large portion, and while it's easy to write off as him being brainwashed, sometimes it hard to tell.

Beyond this, The Lovers & The Despot is just all too content being a very typical documentary: interview, re-enactment, stock footage, and repeat. This makes it hard to really care about what's happening and, even worse, gives the impression of lackadaisical filmmaking. There's no doubt the makers care enough about this subject matter, as they have devoted an entire film to it. However, it seems like the vision was just to get in and get out, presenting the story in as factual a way as possible. This results in a very humdrum experience that might have been better off with the words "Made For TV" following shortly after the title.

Rated 4 out of 10


While the subject matter may be deep, the storytelling is not. The Lovers & The Despot should be a harrowing tale that makes viewers question the motives of everyone involved. Instead, it's a messy, paint by numbers documentary that, viewed under the watchful eyes of someone who's well versed in the subject matter, wouldn't provide much more than they already possess. If you prefer learning with pictures and sound, this is the way to go. Sadly, it's hard to believe this experience offers much a good Google search couldn't provide.

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