By Kyle Cohlmia

Image still from The Lovers and The Despot
Image courtesy of the Oklahoma City Museum of Art

Propaganda film is a genre primarily associated with war. From Mussolini to Mao, dictators from around the world have commissioned, or rather, demanded, a communal and unadulterated representation of their regimes. Propaganda art often negates the artist’s voice, suppresses individualism, or worse, masks the community’s subjection to repression, violence, and humiliation. We see war propaganda in cinematic cannons such as Germany’s Triumph of the Will (1935) and more recently, American Sniper (2014). Even movies made outside the context of war, such as Titanic (1953, 1997) position audiences toward a specific, often political cause. However, what happens when the artist’s story itself is representation of propaganda, and furthermore, do all stories contain a component of personal marketing?

In The Lovers and the Despot (2016), directors Robert Cannon and Ross Adam tell the story of South Korean filmmakers, and once husband and wife who fell in love during the 1950s post-war Korea, Shin Sang-ok and Choi Eun-hee, both allegedly kidnapped by despot and movie-obsessed Kim Jong-il. While Shin passed away in 2006, the film explores this story through interviews of Choi, her two children with Shin, and various friends and family members, interlaced with audio clips of conversations with Jong-il himself.

The premise of The Lovers and the Despot illustrates how Jong-il allegedly abducted the once-lovers to advance the North Korean film industry after Shin’s success in South Korea. As the story goes, after their divorce, spurred by an affair between Shin and another co-star, Choi was unwillingly taken to North Korea. Following her sudden disappearance, Shin was allegedly kidnapped and held hostage for five years before reuniting with Choi who was living under captivation in Jong-il’s compound.

As a documentary, Choi’s interviews are most compelling, as she recounts her story of success and loss during the eight years spent with Jong-il in North Korea. Another interesting factor is Choi’s statement that while under Jong-il’s watchful eye, the two, surprisingly, had free-range to direct the films of their choice. Ultimately, it is the disappearance and forced reunion of the two that presents an eerily dynamic horror story.

In addition, accounts in the film of Jong-il’s upbringing, an isolated experience, and evidence of his father, Kim Il-sung’s dynamic personality in contrast to Jong-il’s introversion and rarity in speaking engagements is worth acknowledging in the context of North Korean history, and visual recordings of North Korean party parades and ceremonies was significant. Specifically, Cannon and Adam showcase footage of both Il-sung’s and Jong-il’s funerals, where North Korean party members were expected to express a certain level of remorse, otherwise be punished.

However, for a story that is relatively unheard of for the rest of the world, this expository documentary lacks important details of Shin and Choi’s imprisonment, which ultimately questions the authenticity of the story. Dramatic music and original clips from Shin’s movies interlude the film, albeit as dramatization versus historical context, making for a kitschy rather than genuine tone. Alluding to theories that the lovers, especially Shin, fabricated their story leaves the audience with too many unanswered questions to come to any concrete conclusions.

In the end, Shin and Choi successfully escape and travel to the United States where they were safely relocated. The lovers’ story is dynamic, yet the documentary as a whole is devoid of connection to the initial subject—abduction. Furthermore, the film leaves you wondering if directors Cannon and Ross narrate a story that creates its own type of propaganda, a nod to British and American ideals. North Korean Cold War influences are prominent in The Lovers and the Despot, however, the story itself leaves you wondering how we improvise stories to create our own timelines where we are consistently the hero.

Image still, The Lovers and The Despot
Image courtesy of the Oklahoma City Museum of Art

For more on the Oklahoma City Museum of Art’s film series, visit