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Kim Jong-il Was So Obsessed With Film He Kidnapped an Actress

Kim Jong-il Was So Obsessed With Film He Kidnapped an Actress



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At the summit with Kim Jong-un in Singapore, U.S. President Donald Trump screened a faux movie trailer so bizarrely flattering of the dictator that many U.S. reporters at first mistook it for North Korean propaganda. The country is famous for heavy-handed state films praising Dear Leader, particularly those movies commissioned under Kim Jong-un’s cinema-obsessed father and predecessor, Kim Jong-il.

In fact, the late Kim’s movie mania was so intense that in 1978, he kidnapped a famous actress and a director from South Korea and forced them to make 17 films.

The actress, Choi Eun-hee, and her director-husband, Shin Jeong-gyun, were a celebrity couple during the Golden Age of South Korean cinema. They reached their professional peak during the 1960s; but by the late ‘70s, Shin’s financial problems and troubles with the then-totalitarian South Korean government had stalled his filmmaking. In addition, his affair with a younger actress had broken up his marriage to Choi, who was also struggling to find work. It was during this time that Choi received an invitation to travel to Hong Kong and discuss a business opportunity—something she wasn’t in a position to pass up.

Unbeknownst to Choi, the offer was a set up by North Korean agents. When she arrived in Hong Kong, an agent led her to a speedboat where a group of men captured her. Upon arrival in North Korea, she was perversely greeted as though she were a celebrity visiting of her own free will. In an interview for the 2016 documentary The Lovers and the Despot, the nearly 90-year-old Choi recalled that photographers took her picture as her captor, Kim Jong-il, stretched out his hand and said, “Thanks for coming.”

Kim was at the time the chief of North Korea’s Propaganda and Agitation Department (his father, Kim Il-sung, was still president). He fancied himself a cinephile, publishing the book On the Art of the Cinemain 1973, and reportedly collecting over 30,000 films during his lifetime (including a lot of porn). At the propaganda department, he helmed North Korea’s production of manipulative state films. Yet according to secret recordings that Choi made of Kim after her capture, he was disappointed with these movies and jealous of those coming out of South Korea.

“Why do all of our films have the same ideological plots?” he asked in one of Choi’s rare recordings of his voice. “There’s nothing new about them. Why are there so many crying scenes? All of our films have crying scenes. This isn’t a funeral. Is it? We don’t have any films that get into film festivals.”

Kim desperately wanted North Korean films to receive international recognition, and he thought Shin was the man to improve the country’s film quality. Kim had his agents bring the director to North Korea a few months after Choi, whom Kim may have used to lure Shin. South Koreans still dispute whether Shin was kidnapped or went willingly. In any case, Shin tried to escape once he was in North Korea, and authorities punished him by sending him to a prison work camp.

For five years, Kim held Shin and Choi captive without knowledge of one other. Shin spent those years in prison camps, and Choi spent that time in isolation, not realizing that her ex-husband was in the country. Finally, in 1983, Kim invited the former couple to his birthday party so he could “introduce” them. It was a shocking, emotional reunion. Soon after, Kim put them to work making films at a breakneck pace.

“In two years and three months, we made 17 films,” Choi said in The Lovers and the Despot. “We only slept two or three hours a night, and worked day and night.”

In a break from previous North Korean cinema, Kim didn’t force Choi and Shin to make films that explicitly promoted the state and its president. Rather, he just wanted them to make films good enough to be shown at film festivals around the world. And he did get a little of what he wanted. Some of these films made it into festivals in the Eastern Bloc.

“I watched most of their films that they made and they’re quite entertaining, actually,” says Suk-Young Kim, a professor of theater, film, and television at the University of California-Los Angeles.

“They’re very, very easy to watch, as opposed to this really regimented, one-dimensional North Korean propaganda,” she continues. “There are a lot of implications of romance and even sex, which was just unheard of in North Korean film. And the characters are much more human, multidimensional; we get to follow their moral dilemma better.”

Choi and Shin traveled to European film festivals under the surveillance of North Korean officers, but were eventually able to evade them at a hotel in Vienna in 1986, after attending the Berlin International Film Festival. Choi and Shin took a taxi to the American embassy, which granted them asylum in the United States. They lived there until 1999, when they returned to South Korea (Shin died in 2006 and Choi died in April 2018).

“Kim Jong-il was very, very upset,” says Professor Kim. “He was outraged by their betrayal, so he did everything possible to erase their trace.” He ended Shin’s practice of giving individual workers credits in films, and also prevented screenings of Shin and Choi’s movies. Because of this, their work didn’t have a direct impact on the propaganda films that came after their escape. It wasn’t until the 2000s, Professor Kim says, that state films began to explore themes that Choi and Shin had tackled, like romance and comedy.

It must have been strange for them to make films in North Korea, Profesor Kim says; not just because they were captives, but also “because reality is highly cinematic and theatrical” in the country. When Kim Jong-il’s father died, for example, citizens who weren’t effusive enough in their public displays of mourning mysteriously disappeared in the night. This led to extremely dramatic displays of sadness in the streets, as people strove to act appropriately distressed.

“In North Korea, films are just an extension of reality,” she says. “You constantly have to play the right roles, say the right things, do the scripted things. The impromptu, improvised action is not very welcome—and there would be grave consequence for it.”


Remembering Choi Eun-hee, the South Korean film actor once abducted by Pyongyang

On 16 May 1962, the actress Choi Eun-hee took to a stage in Seoul to receive a film award from the hands of General Park Chung-hee, who had become South Korea’s leader in a military coup a year earlier. With a wry grin, she dropped to one knee before Park. He laughed, recognising the cheek in her exaggerated display of deference.

Choi, who lived her life in the shadow of despots, was well acquainted with domineering men. The extraordinary film career she shared with her husband and frequent director Shin Sang-ok was at once championed and complicated by two dictators, who admired her talent yet sought to harness her immense popularity for their own political gain.

After years of starring in popular films in South Korea under Park’s watchful eye, she said that she was kidnapped by neighbouring foe North Korea, to become an agent of propaganda in Kim Jong-il’s nascent film industry. That incredible story, while harrowing, made her one of only few artists to reach stardom in both Koreas since the peninsula’s division in 1945. In later life her account of Kim Jong-il provided the outside world with rare insight into the North Korean regime.

Choi Kyung-soon was born in 1926 in the southern Korean city of Gwangju. To pursue acting, away from a disapproving father, she left home at 17 and dropped her given name for Eun-hee.

After a chance encounter with an actress she liked, Choi started working in a theatre company’s costume department. Soon she took to the stage and in 1947 debuted on screen. Not long after that she married the cameraman Kim Hak-sung, who was 20 years her elder. She suffered much from that union, recounting later that Kim would often beat her.

When the Korean War broke out in 1950, she was forced to entertain first the northern troops, who had captured her, then the southern ones, who rescued her only to treat her with contempt. One South Korean military police officer raped her, after accusing her of treason. Commenting in later life on the unity of mistreatment she received from both sides, she said: “I believe [it] shows the irony of the division of South and North Korea. I don’t think such a war should ever be repeated.”

After the war Choi led a life of outward success as an actress but of inward desperation.

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It was her encounter with Shin Sang-ok that would give her cause for hope, at least for a time. As the story goes, Shin, who dreamed of becoming a director and of casting Choi, went to see her on stage. She collapsed from exhaustion halfway through her performance he rushed to tend to her. That was the beginning of their artistic collaboration, and of their romance.

Gossip of the affair quickly spread but, standing firm in her belief that she could have a better life with Shin, Choi challenged the conservatism of Korean society and sued, successfully, for a divorce.

“Please remember today,” Shin told her on the day the divorce was pronounced, after they had run from preying journalists – “7 March 1954. Let today be our wedding day.” Choi had never been happier.

Choi’s name gave Shin the cachet he needed to launch his directing career Shin’s enthusiasm for film renewed Choi’s own. Together they would dominate Korean cinema, and column inches, for three decades. In his blockbuster melodramas, thrillers and historical epics, Shin introduced South Korean audiences to Technicolor, CinemaScope and fully synchronised sound film. Choi earned higher fees than any Korean actress before her, and explored characters as varied as a war widow, a chaste student, a queen and a promiscuous barmaid.

Challenging censors, Shin’s work increasingly explored erotic promiscuity. As a result, Choi, who had met Marilyn Monroe on her 1954 visit to entertain US troops, became her country’s own sex symbol, with all of the admiration and opprobrium that brought. South Korea was then torn between its traditional values and the more liberal cultural influences flooding in from its American ally.

Politically, Shin and Choi toed the line, in one film, for example, praising General Park’s agricultural reforms. On matters of virtue, however, Park’s fondness for their work allowed them greater creative leeway than other filmmakers enjoyed.

Outside of work, Choi and Shin found joy in the adoption of two children.

The couple’s fruitful relationship, both publicly and in private, came to an abrupt end in 1974, when Shin’s affair with a younger actress, Oh Su-mi, and the son he fathered with her, were revealed. (Oh would bear another child from him.)

A devastated Choi divorced Shin. South Korean authorities turned against Shin’s now overly subversive work, both their careers dwindled, and Choi was feared to want to kill herself.

In 1977 an offer of work from Hong Kong lifted Choi’s spirits. But, she later said, the invitation turned out to be a ruse by North Korean agents to kidnap her on behalf of Kim Jong-il, the son of the then dictator Kim Il-sung.

By her own account, she spent days of anguish at sea, not knowing why she had been taken away. Welcoming her in person at the port where she landed, Kim Jong-Il allegedly said, with a grin: “Thank you for coming, Madame Choi.”

Kim had long been obsessed with cinema both as an art form and as a means of mass propaganda. And he had long admired Choi and Shin, the second of whom he also soon managed to have brought to North Korea. With their combined talent, Kim thought, North Korean cinema would gain international acclaim, and spread the country’s ideology. “I acknowledge that we lag behind in filmmaking techniques,” Kim said in a meeting secretly taped by Choi. “We have to know that we are lagging behind and make efforts to raise a new generation of filmmakers.”

Thus began one of the strangest collaborations in film history, by which a dictator-in-waiting coerced two abducted celebrities into producing his country’s most accomplished works of popular art.

Facing this ordeal together, Choi and Shin quickly rekindled their love for one another. Though they often despaired, their sequestration had perks, too. First, Kim Jong-il injected new life into their then dormant careers. Second, he indulged their every request, agreeing to the most extravagant props and shooting locations abroad.

Though propagandistic in intent, some of the films that came out of this collaboration – most famously the Godzilla-inspired Pulgasari – are now considered classics of Korean cinema.

Liberation for Choi and Shin came in 1986, on a visit to Vienna, when they managed to briefly elude their minders and run to the American embassy, where they were granted asylum. Kim had lost his stars.

Choi and Shin flew to the United States, where they gave a memorable press conference about their abduction, and were questioned by the CIA. Choi’s account of a violent and bacchanalian regime heavily influenced Western perceptions of North Korea in the years that followed. But little attention was afforded either to the hardship she had endured in South Korea, or to her impressive decade-long acting career.

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​Choi and Shin were remarried, and became US citizens. Now in her sixties, and with only a limited grasp of English, Choi failed to make a name for herself in Hollywood. But her memoirs, published in Korean, sold well. Paul Fischer’s A Kim Jong-il Production provides the fullest English-language account of her life.

The couple returned to South Korea in 1999. But they did not receive the welcome they had hoped for. Some believed they may have willingly defected to North Korea others, who accepted their tale of abduction, sought to use them as political pawns to excoriate the North.

Her star slowly faded and, saddled with debt, she lived her final years with modest means.

Choi is survived by her two adopted children and by Shin’s two children with Oh, whom she took in as her own during her time in California. Shin predeceased her in 2006.

Though her association with Kim Jong-il dominates accounts of Choi’s life, her legacy is far richer than that, straddling as it does North and South, tradition and modernity, great anguish and unprecedented success.

She enjoyed calligraphy and, having converted to Catholicism in her later years, prayed often. Her favourite song in old age was Kim Do-hyang’s “I’ve Lived Like a Fool”, which somehow expressed the tangled life she had led.

Known for her compassion as much as her resolve, Choi told a recent interviewer she believed that, to be a great actor, one must be a good person. “That is because an actor needs to be able to sympathise with the feelings of others in order to act well,” she said. “I believe a kind heart, looks, speech, skills and the ability to write are the five qualifications of a good actor.

“Of course, a kind heart is the most important factor of the five.”

Choi Eun-hee, actress, born 20 November 1926, died 16 April 2018


Acting For Film Or Acting For Life? Doc Tells Story Of Kim Jong Il's Captives

It's well-known that Dear Leader was crazy about movies. What's less known — at least in the West — is that infamous North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il was so crazy about them that he kidnapped a South Korean actress and a movie director in 1978 and forced them to work for him for years. That story is the subject of a new documentary called The Lovers and the Despot.

"It's just too bizarre to be real," says Ross Adam, one of the film's directors. He and co-director Robert Cannan tracked down actress Choi Eun-hee, who is now nearly 90 years old. In the documentary, Choi remembers getting lured to a seaside home in Hong Kong with an offer for a new film role. "There was a speedboat with three or four strong men," she recalls. "All of a sudden, a guy grabbed me by the arms. Before I knew it, I was on board. All the blood drained from my head to my toes."

Choi was drugged and dragged to North Korea. She awoke as a captive of Kim Jong Il.

"He had a projection room in every house so he could watch movies any time," she says. "Having seen very many movies, he wanted North Korean cinema to be just as great. But he thought his comrades were too simple. To me, he seemed like an artist who loved films."

Kim cared deeply about movies. He wrote a scholarly book about them ( On the Art of the Cinema) in 2001, and he complained bitterly about the state of the North Korean film industry to Choi, who secretly taped Kim. "Why do all of our films have the same ideological plots?" Dear Leader rants in one tape. "There's nothing new about them. Why are there so many crying scenes? All of our films have crying scenes. This isn't a funeral, is it?"

Over the course of eight years, Kim forced his pet actress and director Shin Sang-ok to make nearly 20 films: historical dramas, martial arts movies, even a North Korean version of Godzilla. One of those films, The Tale of Chunhyang, is something like Romeo and Juliet, and it's the first North Korean film to feature a kiss.

"In North Korea, there were no love stories," Choi says in the documentary. "Films were about loyalty, dedication and hard work. But we made the first love story in North Korean history."

These movies started making their way to film festivals, mostly behind the Iron Curtain, and eventually Kim allowed the couple to travel. "Shin and Choi were his prize toys and he wanted to show them off to the world," says director Ross Adam. On one such trip in 1986, Choi and Shin escaped to the U.S. Embassy in Vienna, freeing themselves from their Cold War captor.

But some wondered how Shin ended up in his clutches to begin with. "Like many South Koreans, I have my doubts about Shin's true motivation to go to North Korea," says UC-Santa Barbara professor Suk-Young Kim. She says Shin was a political dissident in South Korea as well as its most celebrated filmmaker. In the mid-1970s, the military government started censoring his movies and Shin's career cratered. Some believe he defected to North Korea on purpose. (The whole story may never be known — Shin died in 2006.)

Over the years, Suk-Young Kim has seen lots of interviews with the documentary's only surviving main character, actress Choi Eun-hee, but she says this one is surprisingly revealing. "There was depth to it. I mean, you could really hear what she was going through. Choi Eun-hee says it so well: 'There's acting for film, and there's acting for life.' And in North Korea those could be one in the same thing."

Suk-Young Kim says North Korea remains a highly cinematic society — a stage set, of sorts, for another dictator obsessed with spectacle and drama, where public displays of emotion and patriotism are required. In that way, The Lovers and the Despot is kind of a movie about a movie -- but one in which the vast majority of citizens, or "actors," has no hope to escape.


Contents

Kim Jong-il joined the Propaganda and Agitation Department in 1966 and soon became director of the Motion Picture and Arts Division. [5] He was a big fan of films, with a library of 15,000 at his disposal. As director he reached the public with films and operas homogeneous in theme: pride in the nation and specifically in Kim Il-sung. Charles K. Armstrong writes in his book, Tyranny of the Weak: North Korea and the World 1950–1992, that "Kim took North Korean arts in a direction that seemed specifically designed to ensure his father's favor: under his guidance, new films and operas focused as never before on the anti-Japanese struggle of Kim Il Sung and his comrades in Manchuria during the 1930s". [6]

Kim Jong-il was frustrated with his films in the early 1970s. He could tell that in contrast to the other films being released globally, his were stiff and lifeless. His diagnosis was a lack of enthusiasm from his actors and crew. Bradley K. Martin, author of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty, explains this while quoting a 1983 tape recording of Kim: "The difference, he suggested, was that North Korean film industry people knew that the state would feed them even if they performed only minimally, so they didn’t try hard. 'Because they have to earn money,' Kim said, Southern movie industry people expended blood, sweat, and tears to get results." [7]

He needed fresh and passionate voices that would advance North Korean cinema. In the grand scale of Kim Jong-il's plan, further excerpts from the recording went as follows: "If we continually show Western films on television, show them without restraint, then only nihilistic thoughts can come about. all those things, patriotism, patriotism – we have to increase this, but we only make them idolize Western things. So we must advance the technology before opening. thus, because of this, I want to give rights to a limited degree." [8]

Actress Choi Eun-hee was abducted in Hong Kong after being propositioned to direct a film, with the possibility of running a performing academy in a Hong Kong school. [9] She was taken from Repulse Bay and arrived in Nampo Harbor, North Korea, on January 22, 1978. She was housed in a luxury villa called Building Number 1. [10] Choi toured the city and was shown both Pyongyang and Kim Il-sung's birthplace, among other landmarks and museums. [11] She was later given a private tutor, who instructed her on the life and achievements of Kim Il-sung. Kim Jong-il took her to movies, operas, musicals, and parties. He asked her opinion on various films and respected her perspective. She was not informed that she had been kidnapped as bait for Shin until five years after her capture. [12]

After Choi disappeared, Shin Sang-ok began searching for her. They had been divorced and Shin had another family at that time. Shin had also been struggling with the South Korean government because his film license for Shin Studios had been revoked. He had been traveling the world searching for one of his films to be greenlit so that he could acquire a resident visa. Six months after Choi's capture, Shin was kidnapped by North Korean operatives while staying in Hong Kong. [13] Though he was also given lavish accommodations, he initially was not told about the capture of Choi. After two failed escape attempts, he was sent to prison for disobedience. On February 23, 1983, Shin received a letter saying he was to be released from jail. On March 7, 1983, Shin and Choi were reunited at a party hosted by Kim Jong-il. [14]

Shin and Choi were shown Kim Jong-il's vast personal film library, which reportedly consisted of over 15,000 films from around the world. The couple was instructed to watch and critique four films per day. The majority of films were from the communist bloc, though there were also the occasional Hollywood films. Shin and Choi displayed respect for Kim's film knowledge and perspective. Eventually, Kim shared how he wanted Shin to direct a film and enter it into an international contest. Shin would have an office at Choson Film Studios in Pyongyang. [1] Kim was aware that the internal propaganda slant of his films might not appeal to an international audience and garner spots in international contests, so he allowed Shin to broaden the subject material and select themes that would be more acceptable abroad. [3] Shin began work on 20 October 1983. [1] Shin and Choi won an award for one of their films at a festival in Czechoslovakia. The final and most expensive film that they made under Kim Jong-il was called Pulgasari, which was heavily influenced by the recently popular Godzilla films. [1]

Their films included the following:

  1. An Emissary of No Return (Doraoji annun milsa, 1984): Based on a stage play called Bloody Conference written by Kim Il-sung. In the film, Ri Jun, a Korean emissary at The Hague International Peace Conference in 1907 tries to convince the international community to help reverse the Japanese-Korean Protective Treaty of 1905, which left Korea under Japanese leadership. Ri Jun delivers a speech at the conference and when he doesn't win support from the Western powers, he commits hara-kiri in front of the diplomats. Shin shot sections of the film in Czechoslovakia and used European actors, something never done before in North Korean cinema. [15]
  2. Love, Love, My Love (Sarang sarang nae sarang, 1984): A take on the ancient Korean folk tale, The Tale of Chunhyang. The film was shot as a musical and featured a first in North Korean cinema, a slightly veiled kiss between the two leading actors. Chunhyang falls in love with Mongnyong, a wealthy aristocrat, but he must leave to the capital to train to be a government official. While he is gone, a new governor takes over the province and falls for Chunhyang. When rejected, he imprisons her. Just before she is about to be executed, Mongnyong returns to save her. [15]
  3. Runaway (Talchulgi, 1984): A story set in the 1920s in the Japanese colonial period. Protagonist Song-ryul and his wife (played by Choi Eun-hee) live in poverty. The family moves to the Gando area of Manchuria looking for a better life, but their suffering persists. Song-ryul joins the ranks of the Kim Il-sung group and once he is with the guerrillas, he blows up a Japanese army train. [15]
  4. Salt (Sogum, 1985): A story set in Gando in the 1930s. In the film, Choi Eun-hee plays Song-ryul's wife. The family hides a wealthy Korean-Chinese merchant, and the father is killed in a fight between the Japanese police and the Chinese bandits. She believes that her husband died because of the communists. Then Choi, in poverty, asks for the Korean-Chinese merchant's help, but he rapes her. After a series of tragedies, a neighbor tells her about a lucrative illegal business: smuggling salt. While she is smuggling salt, the group she is with is attacked by the Japanese, and a communist group saves her. She discovers that the communists were actually the ones fighting for the common people and sets out to join them. Choi won best actress at the Moscow Film Festival for this role. [15]
  5. The Tale of Shim Chong (Simcheongjeon, 1985): Shin directed a musical version of this classic tale of filial piety. Shim Chong lives with her blind father. She sacrifices herself so that his blindness can be cured, so she is taken by merchant sailors. They toss her overboard and she goes down to the palace of the God of the Sea. She is put back on land inside of a giant floating orchid. She is found by the king, and they fall in love and are married. In the end, Shim Chong is reunited with her father, and he is healed of his blindness. [15]
  6. Pulgasari (1985): This film was heavily influenced by the popular Godzilla films at the time. It is about a farmers' uprising in medieval Korea. A little girl pricks her finger while sewing, and the blood falls on a little dragon toy made out of rice, causing it to come to life as a monster. It fights for the farmers and smashes the emperor's palace. Nevertheless, his appetite is so big that he starts eating the farmers' tools, so the girl who spawned it decides to sacrifice herself by disguising herself as Pulgasari's food. When the monster accidentally eats the girl, he explodes and dies. [15]

To defend themselves should they ever escape North Korea, Choi and Shin decided to sneak in a tape recorder to their conversations with Kim Jong-il so they would have proof that they didn't willingly leave the South. In one conversation recorded on October 19, 1983, Kim spoke openly about his plot to kidnap Shin and Choi to upgrade North Korea's film industry. He told Shin and Choi that it would be best if they spoke to the press saying that they came to North Korea voluntarily. [1] Shin and Choi attended a press conference on April 12, 1984 in Belgrade, Yugoslavia where they said they were in North Korea by their own choosing.

After finishing Pulgasari, the two were in talks with Kim about another film when they took a trip to Vienna in 1986. Kim had requested Choi and Shin travel to the Austrian city to find someone that would finance a biographical film about Genghis Khan. [16] On March 12, 1986, the couple checked into the InterContinental Vienna to meet journalist Akira Enoki under the pretense of an interview, and convinced their North Korean bodyguards to leave the room. [16] [17] After telling a hotel employee to let the United States embassy know that they were both seeking asylum, Choi and Shin got into a taxicab with Enoki at 12:30pm and sped away. [17] After being chased by the North Koreans into traffic congestion, the pair got out of the taxi and sprinted into the embassy. [18] The New York Times posted an article on March 22, 1986 announcing that the couple got away from their North Korean caretakers and sought political asylum in the US embassy. [19]

Following their escape, Shin lived in the United States for many years working in the film industry before returning home to South Korea. North Korea issued a statement denying the claims that Shin and Choi had been kidnapped and instead maintained that Shin and Choi had voluntarily defected to North Korea [4] and when they left they had embezzled a large amount of North Korean money intended to finance the Genghis Khan film. [19]

After the release of Paul Fischer's book, A Kim Jong-Il Production, in 2015, the abduction of Shin Sang-ok and Choi Eun-hee piqued the interest of those outside Korea. Vanity Fair documented a screening of Pulgasari in Brooklyn, New York, in April 2015. [20] The Washington Post suspects a film will be made retelling the story. [21] BBC Radio Four broadcast a 90-minute dramatisation in September 2017. [22]

In January 2016, at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, in the World Cinema Documentary Competition, a documentary about the North Korean ordeal, entitled The Lovers and the Despot and directed by Robert Cannan and Ross Adam, was presented.

The French TV mini-series, Kim Kong, produced by Arte, written by Simon Jablonka and Alexis Le Sec, directed by Stephen Cafiero and starring Jonathan Lambert, is based upon these events. [23]


Bond goes bad

Defectors from North Korea have been able to shed some light on Kim's personal taste in movies.

"Kim Jong-il was like any ordinary young man. He liked action movies, sex movies, horror movies," Shin Sang-Ok told the BBC in 2003.

"He liked all the women that most men like, he liked James Bond."

Elsewhere, Shin listed Kim's favourite films as Friday the 13th, Rambo and Hong Kong action films.

He also revealed to the Seoul Times that the leader's favourite actor was Sean Connery, and his favourite actress was Elizabeth Taylor.

The first Western film to be publicly screened in North Korea was Bend It Like Beckham, watched (in edited form) by 12,000 people at the Pyongyang Film Festival in 2004.

Kim was also said to have been a fan of Ealing comedies, inspired by their emphasis on team spirit and a mobilised proletariat.

Former US Secretary of State Madeline Albright also gleaned a direct insight into the Korean cineaste's habits during a state visit in 2000.

According to the New York Times, Kim asked Albright if she had seen any recent films.

When she replied "Gladiator", Kim said he had seen Steven Spielberg's Amistad, which he described as "very sad".

He also told Wendy Sherman, who was in Pyongyang as a special advisor: "I own all the Academy Award movies. I've watched them all."

But Kim was less than enamoured by Hollywood's portrayal of his own regime.

When his beloved James Bond was captured and tortured during a North Korean mission in Die Another Day, the government called it "insulting to the Korean nation".

But most scathing of all was Trey Parker and Matt Stone's Team America: World Police, in which a marionette of Kim Jong-il with a crudely-impersonated Korean accent sits at a piano singing: "I'm so ronrery [lonely]."

This parody of a vain and isolated leader is, to many Westerners, the presiding impression of Kim Jong-il.

Indeed, Team America became a trending topic on Twitter within hours of his death being announced.

Kim may not have approved of the caricature. But he would certainly have appreciated cinema's power to shape people's minds.


Kidnapped by Kim Jong-Il

Reading a book about North Korea is like reading a story out of Oz. The ways people act, the way society is organized, the things that are presented as truth: All strain Western credulity. Add the fact that American reporting is often too credulous about the country—they're going to nuke Austin!—and it becomes even more difficult to strain fact from fiction, propaganda from mythology, and deceit from misunderstanding.

Though North Korea's population numbers close to 25 million, only a few hundred of those people are allowed access to the Internet. The Kim regime intentionally seeks to keep the nation "protected" from corrupting foreign ideas. This forced ignorance makes it far easier to claim, say, that Pyongyang cold noodles are mimicked worldwide, or that the Great Leader Kim Il-Sung, North Korea's founder, is the most admired man in the world. If the typical resident of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) went online, he would find more than a few surprises. For one, Kim Jong-Il is far better known in the United States than his father (akin to a foreigner knowing of Nancy Sinatra but not Frank). Second, he'd see that "listicles" exist, many devoted to crazy facts about North Korea.

Many of these "facts" are reported correctly. It is true, for example, that North Korean propagandists claim that Kim Jong-Il causes the weather to change. But many are misreported. Kim Jong-Il did not claim to have "invented" the hamburger so much as having introduced the food to North Korea—technically true in a totalitarian dictatorship, where everything must meet the Dear Leader's approval. Nor does the DPRK maintain that Kim Jong-Il wrote over a thousand books while he was in college. If that were the case, they would surely all be in print there. What their literature describes is that he authored more than 1,400 "treatises, talks, speeches, and letters." What at first sounds absurd due to its bombast becomes absurd due to its banality, as if writing the equivalent of one email a day is something to boast of.

And yes, the Pyongyang regime did claim that Kim Jong-Il could "shrink time." But this simply means that he can read a report, listen to a speech, and answer questions all at once. In other words, the Dear Leader is capable of multitasking, and is apparently uniquely blessed as such in the entire nation. As with most North Korean anecdotes, one laughs at the idea until one begins to read between the lines. Then comes the unsettling realization that it is perfectly possible that virtually no one in the country is supposed to multitask. The holy masses are actually cogs in the state machine, being assigned one job and one job only. The entrepreneur who wears many hats is all but extinct in the juche nation. The line between humor and horror is razor-thin in the worst nation on earth.

One of these perennial listicle "facts" forms the basis of A Kim Jong-Il Production, a new book by the film producer Paul Fischer. Many Americans have heard that "Kim Jong-Il kidnapped a South Korean actress and director to film a communist Godzilla movie." That statement is at best half-true, as Fischer explains in skilled detail. The film, Pulgasari, wasn't a "Godzilla" movie per se. And it was the last in a series of films made by the kidnapped artists, the story of which is far more interesting than any of the movies themselves.

In the late 1960s, when Kim Il-Sung still reigned in North Korea, Kim Jong-Il was cutting his teeth in the Workers' Party of Korea Propaganda and Agitation Department. His reinvention of the DPRK's movie industry is one cultural achievement that is actually demonstrably true. It helped, of course, that his father was an absolute dictator who could have any competitors killed.

Despite North Korea's ultranationalism, which frequently veers toward a pure isolationism, the country has consistently sought international recognition and validation. Pyongyang's landmark Tower of the Juche Idea proudly displays plaques allegedly donated by such nations as Gambia, Mauritius, and Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso). Pyongyang's propaganda boasts that international forums on juche "have been hosted by a number of countries like Sierra Leone, Somalia, Togo, Peru, Madagascar and Malta." One suspects that the anonymous state author would have preferred to include, say, Russia and Canada.

One of the best ways to receive international acclaim is through the arts. But since North Korean cinema was exclusively devoted to glorifying the Great Leader and urging the masses to further the revolution, its export appeal was necessarily limited. By the time Kim Jong-Il was running the literal show, North Korea was regarded as somewhat of an embarrassment or an irrelevance even within the Communist bloc. So if the local talent wouldn't do, the Dear Leader would simply import foreign know-how—and since this is North Korea, "import" here meant "kidnap." If Korea is one nation riven in two by U.S. imperialism, then taking Koreans from the wicked South and bringing them to the North is simply repatriating them to safety…right?

After the Korean War, Shin Sang-Ok had been the first South Korean director to receive international acclaim. Choi Eun-Hee, his wife and muse, became one of South Korea's most famous actresses. But by the 1970s, both were becoming has-beens. As their careers foundered, so did their marriage, which terminated after Shin got his mistress pregnant.

It is unclear whether Kim Jong-Il saw this as an opening. But the North Koreans were soon luring Choi to Hong Kong by promising her the opportunity to run an acting school there. Told she would be meeting an important contact, Choi was driven to a beach, where several men overpowered her and dragged her aboard a small white motor skiff. Informing her that "we are now going to the bosom of General Kim Il-Sung," she was then transferred to as freighter headed to the DPRK. As Michael Breen so presciently put it in his 2004 book Kim Jong-Il, "In a scene that will no doubt one day feature in a movie, for it highlights so vividly the extent to which North Korea is in moral outer space, Kim Jong-il himself turned up at the dock to meet the kidnapped celebrity off the boat."

The group Human Rights in North Korea has an entire study, Taken!, covering DPRK abductions. It is unclear how many of these kidnappings have taken place, but there may have been more than 180,000 (including war captives). These are the stories of lives reduced to old blurry photographs, later matched with an errant eyewitness sighting. These captives are assigned new names and identities, hidden away in a foreign capital, their lives as close to a phantom's as humanly possible. They serve as foreign-language professors for North Korean spies, among other roles.

In Choi's case, she was effectively placed under house arrest in a wooded cabin with a state-provided companion, unclear on why she was in North Korea. Soon Shin was likewise captured and brought, separately, to the DPRK. More aggressive than she in his escape attempts, he was eventually sentenced to a prison term.

It is impossible to describe the state of dreamlike timelessness that exists in North Korea. Take the case of U.S. soldier Charles Robert Jenkins, who defected into the DPRK in 1965 and regretted it almost immediately. His memoir describes his "forty-year in imprisonment in North Korea" in a mere 120 pages. In other words, he averages just three pages a year to describe a society completely foreign to the American experience in every way.

Shin was forced to sit cross-legged in captivity for 16 hours a day, his "daily regime for two and a half years." So too was Choi "moved back to Tongbuk-Ri, where she spent another year, resuming her endless rounds of sightseeing and ideological lessons." So little of note occurs that a year can pass in a single sentence.

Eventually Kim Jong-Il reunited Choi and Shin, unilaterally declaring the couple remarried. Now the couple had to gain Kim Jong-Il's confidence over a period of years by elevating the North Korea film industry, hoping that one day they would be able to step foot on the far side of the Iron Curtain and flee his clutches. (Spoiler alert: They eventually escaped.) The Dear Leader's insistence that no one is to be trusted at any time, that people can lie to you for years only to betray you, turned out to be precisely right—and in this case, obviously justified.

Many DPRK apologists accuse the couple of having defected willingly to revive their flagging careers. So it is with any North Korean story. We can only fill in blanks retroactively. We can be sure that the DPRK was behind the 1987 bombing of Korean Air Flight 858 because a senior official slipped decades later, complaining that North Korea was labeled a state sponsor of terrorism despite not having done it since then. Similarly, we know that such kidnappings occurred because Kim Jong-Il publicly apologized for them to Japan's prime minister.

At the end of the past year North Korea was famously accused of hacking into Sony in an act of vengeance for the film The Interview. While denying responsibility, they simultaneously praised the hackers and threatened nuclear war—a statement that can be read as obviously true (why deny a lesser act while acknowledging your willingness to commit a greater one?) and as obviously false (methinks the leader doth protest too much). I have high-level sources who tell me that the attack absolutely could not have come from North Korea, and I have high-level sources who tell me that it absolutely did. In the end, one is left looking at the events as one looks at everything else that comes out of the DPRK: If one must eat the dishes served from Pyongyang, they must be taken with more than a grain of salt.

Michael Malice is the author of Dear Reader: The Unauthorized Autobiography of Kim Jong Il. He is also the subject of Harvey Pekar's graphic novel Ego & Hubris (Ballantine) and the co-author of several other books.


Meet the Movie Star Kidnapped by North Korean Dictator Kim Jong Il

Eager to have the North Korean movie industry catch up to South Korea, the Dear Leader kidnapped a top South Korean actress and director. And that’s just the beginning.

Jen Yamato

Via Facebook

After spending eight days at sea drugged and captive on a cargo ship, South Korean actress Choi Eun-hee disembarked her nautical prison in a strange port, in a strange country.

Terrified and disoriented, the film star—who’d shared photo ops with Marilyn Monroe and traveled the world—hid behind tinted sunglasses. Her arrival was heavily documented by waiting photographers. So was the moment when North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il welcomed her, his hand outstretched to the superstar whose kidnapping he’d just orchestrated: “Thanks for coming.”

The strange but true story of North Korea’s film-obsessed Dear Leader and the filmmaking couple he abducted in order to build his own Hollywood in the heart of the DPRK makes for surreal suspense in The Lovers and the Despot, the U.K.-produced documentary that premiered at Sundance.

Debuting just over a year after the Sony hack allegedly launched by North Korea over the Kim Jong Un-skewering Seth Rogen comedy The Interview, the melodramatic doc vividly recounts how Choi and her director ex-husband Shin Sang-ok spent eight years in gilded imprisonment as Kim’s guests, coerced into rebuilding the nation’s movie industry.

No film may ever top Team America: World Police’s inflammatory depiction of North Korea’s eccentric, baby-faced tyrant, but The Lovers and the Despot, directed by Robert Cannan and Ross Adam, similarly ponders Kim’s obsession with Western pop culture and the bizarre upbringing that molded his curious mystique-shrouded personality.

“Kim Jong Il had a most bizarre childhood,” remarks former U.S. State Department official David Straub, one of several talking heads whose recollections of Choi and Shin’s wild tale help propel the film. “He was clearly an awful leader and an awful person as an adult, but one has to feel a little sympathy for this boy unable to live anything like a normal childhood… Kim Jong Il thought of himself as an artiste.”

Combining an at times emotional interview with the now 89-year-old Choi with archival footage of propaganda-fueled masses and slyly styled reenactments, the film cleverly appropriates scenes from films Shin and Choi made before and during their years under Kim’s thumb to illustrate their turbulent, often harrowing experiences. That in itself lends an unusually intimate touch to the proceedings that you’d be hard pressed to find in many other docs.

The directors also make liberal use of a true rarity: tape recordings of Kim that Choi and Shin made covertly when they began plotting their escape.

“Why do all of our films have the same ideological plots? There’s nothing new about them,” we hear Kim complaining, bemoaning the lack of North Korean product accepted into prestigious international film festivals around the world. “Why are there so many crying scenes? All of our films have crying scenes. This isn’t a funeral. Is it?”

He seems to grow increasingly irate, envious of South Korean cinema’s superiority over his country’s primarily clichéd nationalist output. “I’ve looked at South Korean films. I asked my advisor, who’s the best director in the South? He said that his name is Shin. How could we persuade him to come here? How could I lure this director Shin?”

At the time of her abduction in 1978, Choi had been divorced from Shin, with whom she had adopted a son and a daughter, for two years. Once the darlings of South Korean cinema, they’d gotten married after she starred in a movie of his. But their power coupling dissolved in 1976 when he ran off with a younger actress, with whom he had two children out of wedlock.

Choi had been enticed to Hong Kong by a female producer who turned out to be a North Korean spy. Choi recounts how, while visiting a seaside retreat with the woman and the woman’s young daughter, she was grabbed by men in a speedboat and whisked away to the North. Days after her arrival, she says, she met with her captor fearing that either Kim Jong Il or his father, dictator Kim Il Sung, had nefarious intentions for her. Instead, he broke the ice with a joke.

“Look at me! Aren’t I small like a midget’s turd?”

Choi was received as a guest and given tours of Kim’s projection rooms, one in every house. “To me, he seemed like an artist who loved films,” she said. When he had his staff show her a film in which a woman kills her lover when he tries to leave her, she understood: “He needed me. But if I betrayed him, he’d kill me.”

It’s easier to sympathize with Choi more than her husband Shin, who passed away in 2006 and can only be heard sharing his version of events in microcassette recordings. Even friends and the couple’s grown children paint Shin as a dogged filmmaker who was born to make movies but not so great with budgets, the gangsters who came to collect on unpaid bills, or his own family. (Why Shin’s other children and baby mama are never again mentioned is one of several nagging gaps the film leaves unexplained.)

But Shin’s experience was more brutal by far than that of his wife, who describes how she took to gardening and screaming fits to deal with Kim’s stifling control over every aspect of her life. When Choi disappeared—an event puzzled over in newspapers across the globe—he went looking for her. The doc’s talking heads peg him as a North Korean agent, too, but according to Shin’s own account he was similarly taken prisoner by the DPRK and held for years in prison camps, subjected to brainwashing attempts and brutal treatment.

When he attempted to break out of prison, he turned to the movies, modeling his plans on Steve McQueen’s The Great Escape. Once he broke free, however, he found himself hopelessly lost. Shin was recaptured and sent back to prison—a trauma, the film argues, that made him wary of attempting escape again in later years without a solid plan. Back behind bars, he tried a different tack: pledging allegiance to Kim.

After enduring four years as a prisoner of North Korea, Shin was finally reunited with Choi—by surprise, at Kim Jong Il’s swanky birthday party. Before the long-separated lovers even had a chance to catch up on all those lost years, they had to pose for a photo with Kim sandwiched between them.

The irony of living under despotic rule as Kim’s kept artists in residence was that Shin and Choi were given more artistic and financial freedom than they’d ever had before. Under their Shin Films banner, the couple made 17 films in two years ranging from war epics to a Godzilla kaiju knockoff. Choi admits it was pretty great to win awards for her work, even if those awards came from the few Communist countries she and Shin were permitted to visit.

The film’s spy movie trajectory builds to an intriguing conclusion as it details how the couple finally made their move to escape North Korea with the help of an international network of intrepid film critics. The directors bookend the crazy if seemingly incomplete tale with footage of the presser the shell-shocked couple gave after defecting during a film festival in Vienna, letting Shin’s own remarks contextualize their experience to the more skeptical of critics.

A few footnotes linger as The Lovers and the Despot explains what became of Choi, Shin, and Kim Jong Il after their fateful time together. Perhaps the most surreal development is the fact that Shin went on to direct the sequel to the ‘90s kids classic 3 Ninjas as well as executive produce two more films in the franchise.

The more sobering postscript is one that ties Kim Jong Il’s notorious cinephile streak to his emotionally manipulative hold over a nation of millions who believe he’s a god on earth that has never gone to the bathroom once in his life. Directors Cannan and Adam suggest a latent directorial aspiration in the way Kim, who never did get an internationally respectable film industry going in the DPRK, induced generations of North Korean citizens to “perform” displays of loyalty and leader-worship under pain of punishment.

Even current North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un gets a shout-out in the form of a warning in the film, which is set to be released this year after it was acquired by Magnolia Pictures out of Sundance. But no amount of frustrated movie geekery can account for the chain of succession charted from Kim Il Sung to Kim Jong Il to Kim Jong Un, whose collective seven decades of North Korean oppression paints the most panic-inducing picture of all.


Acting For Film Or Acting For Life? Doc Tells Story Of Kim Jong Il's Captives

It's well-known that Dear Leader was crazy about movies. What's less known — at least in the West — is that infamous North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il was so crazy about them that he kidnapped a South Korean actress and a movie director in 1978 and forced them to work for him for years. That story is the subject of a new documentary called The Lovers and the Despot.

"It's just too bizarre to be real," says Ross Adam, one of the film's directors. He and co-director Robert Cannan tracked down actress Choi Eun-hee, who is now nearly 90 years old. In the documentary, Choi remembers getting lured to a seaside home in Hong Kong with an offer for a new film role. "There was a speedboat with three or four strong men," she recalls. "All of a sudden, a guy grabbed me by the arms. Before I knew it, I was on board. All the blood drained from my head to my toes."

Choi was drugged and dragged to North Korea. She awoke as a captive of Kim Jong Il.

"He had a projection room in every house so he could watch movies any time," she says. "Having seen very many movies, he wanted North Korean cinema to be just as great. But he thought his comrades were too simple. To me, he seemed like an artist who loved films."

Kim cared deeply about movies. He wrote a scholarly book about them (On the Art of the Cinema) in 2001, and he complained bitterly about the state of the North Korean film industry to Choi, who secretly taped Kim. "Why do all of our films have the same ideological plots?" Dear Leader rants in one tape. "There's nothing new about them. Why are there so many crying scenes? All of our films have crying scenes. This isn't a funeral, is it?"

Over the course of eight years, Kim forced his pet actress and director Shin Sang-ok to make nearly 20 films: historical dramas, martial arts movies, even a North Korean version of Godzilla. One of those films, The Tale of Chunhyang, is something like Romeo and Juliet, and it's the first North Korean film to feature a kiss.

"In North Korea, there were no love stories," Choi says in the documentary. "Films were about loyalty, dedication and hard work. But we made the first love story in North Korean history."

These movies started making their way to film festivals, mostly behind the Iron Curtain, and eventually Kim allowed the couple to travel. "Shin and Choi were his prize toys and he wanted to show them off to the world," says director Ross Adam. On one such trip in 1986, Choi and Shin escaped to the U.S. Embassy in Vienna, freeing themselves from their Cold War captor.

But some wondered how Shin ended up in his clutches to begin with. "Like many South Koreans, I have my doubts about Shin's true motivation to go to North Korea," says UC-Santa Barbara professor Suk-Young Kim. She says Shin was a political dissident in South Korea as well as its most celebrated filmmaker. In the mid-1970s, the military government started censoring his movies and Shin's career cratered. Some believe he defected to North Korea on purpose. (The whole story may never be known — Shin died in 2006.)

Over the years, Suk-Young Kim has seen lots of interviews with the documentary's only surviving main character, actress Choi Eun-hee, but she says this one is surprisingly revealing. "There was depth to it. I mean, you could really hear what she was going through. Choi Eun-hee says it so well: 'There's acting for film, and there's acting for life.' And in North Korea those could be one in the same thing."

Suk-Young Kim says North Korea remains a highly cinematic society — a stage set, of sorts, for another dictator obsessed with spectacle and drama, where public displays of emotion and patriotism are required. In that way, The Lovers and the Despot is kind of a movie about a movie -- but one in which the vast majority of citizens, or "actors," has no hope to escape.

The late North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il was a movie fanatic. In 1978, he kidnapped a South Korean actress and her movie director husband and forced them to work for him. A new documentary tells that story. NPR's Neda Ulaby spoke with one of the filmmakers.

ROSS ADAM: It's just too bizarre to be real.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Ross Adam is one of the two directors who tracked down actress Choi Eun-hee. Now she's nearly 90 years old. In the documentary she remembers getting lured to Hong Kong with an offer to star in a movie.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE LOVERS AND THE DESPOT")

CHOI EUN-HEE: (Through interpreter) There was no reason to be suspicious.

ULABY: Choi went to visit a home by the sea she thought was owned by a producer.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE LOVERS AND THE DESPOT")

CHOI: (Through interpreter) There was a speedboat with three or four strong men. All of a sudden a guy grabbed me by the arms. Before I knew it, I was onboard. All the blood drained from my head to my toes.

ULABY: Choi was drugged and dragged to North Korea. She awoke as a captive of Kim Jong Il.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE LOVERS AND THE DESPOT")

CHOI: (Through interpreter) He had a projection room in every house so he could watch movies any time. Having seen very many movies, he wanted North Korea cinema to be just that great. But he thought his comrades were too simple. To me, he seems like an artist who loved films.

ULABY: And he intrigued documentary directors Robert Cannan and Ross Adam.

ADAM: We're equally terrified but also attracted to dictators and their inner world and their particular kind of ego.

ULABY: Kim Jong Il's ego is captured secretly on tape by the actress as he complained about North Korea's underwhelming film industry.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE LOVERS AND THE DESPOT")

KIM JONG IL: (Through interpreter) Why do all of our films have the same ideological plots? There's nothing new about them. Why are there so many crying scenes? All of our films have crying scenes. This isn't a funeral, is it?

ULABY: It's compelling to hear Kim Jong Il's voice partly because we think of him as a powerful visual icon.

SUK-YOUNG KIM: Wearing his glasses, wearing this ridiculous Maoist suit.

ULABY: Suk-Young Kim studies North Korean film and teaches at UCLA.

KIM: And you can really hear the dilemma that he was facing.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE LOVERS AND THE DESPOT")

KIM: (Through interpreter) Let's show the West what we are capable of.

ULABY: Over the course of eight years, Kim Jong Il forced his pet actress and her director husband, Shin Sang-ok, to make nearly 20 films - historical traumas, martial arts movies, even a North Korean version of "Godzilla" and more, as actress Choi Eun-Hee says in the film.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE LOVERS AND THE DESPOT")

CHOI: (Through interpreter) In North Korea, there were no love stories. Films were about loyalty, dedication and hard work. But we made the first love story in North Korean history.

ULABY: After these movies made their way to film festivals mostly behind the Iron Curtain, Kim Jong Il started allowing the couple to travel.

ADAM: Shin and Choi were his prize toys, and he wanted to show them off to the world.

ULABY: Director Ross Adams says in 1986 at a film festival in Austria, the two escaped to the U.S. Embassy. But even though Choi and Shin escaped their captor, some people wondered how the director in particular had ended up in his clutches to begin with.

KIM: Like many South Koreans, I have my doubts about Shin's true motivation to go to North Korea.

ULABY: Professor Suk-Young Kim says Shin was a rebel, a political dissident in South Korea. And although he was then its most celebrated filmmaker, his movies had started to be censored by the military government. Some believe he defected to North Korea on purpose. Shin died in 2006 and the whole story may never be known. But coming to it as outsiders was useful, says British documentary director Ross Adam.

ADAM: We had no kind of ulterior motives or no preconceptions about the story. We were going to approach it with an open mind.

ULABY: And that's apparent, says film professor Suk-Young Kim. She's seen lots of interviews with the documentary's only surviving main character, actress Choi Eun-Hee, but this one felt surprisingly honest.

KIM: There was depth to it. I mean you could really hear what she was going through.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE LOVERS AND THE DESPOT")

KIM: Choi Eun-Hee says it so well. There's acting for film, and there's acting for life. And in North Korea, those could be one and the same thing.

ULABY: Suk-Young Kim says North Korea remains a highly cinematic society, a stage set of sorts for another dictator obsessed with spectacle and drama. In that way, the documentary "The Lovers And The Despot" is a movie about a movie, she says, but one whose unwilling actors will mostly never escape. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


Review: ‘The Lovers and the Despot’ reveals the story of Kim Jong Il’s private, kidnapped filmmakers

Is there a film fan anywhere who doesn’t wish his or her country made better films, who couldn’t sympathize with Kim Jong Il when he’s heard to say, “There’s nothing new to our films. We don’t have any films that get into film festivals. People here are so close-minded”?

Kim Jong Il was no everyday film fan, however. Oh, no. He was the absolute ruler of North Korea, and though you’d think he’d have more important matters to attend to, he not only did something about his complaint, he did it in a frankly astonishing way.

“The Lovers and the Despot,” a beyond belief documentary by Rob Cannan and Ross Adam, closely examines the singular case of top South Korean director Shin Sang-ok and popular actress (and Shin’s former wife) Choi Eun-hee.

In the late 1970s, Kim had these movie luminaries abducted and brought to his country, where they were coerced and convinced to make films for the North. “I want you to be world famous,” the dictator told them. “Let’s show the West what we are capable of.”

Because this tale is so outlandish, Shin knew that it would be hard to believe. So he and his wife contrived to secretly tape-record some of Kim’s conversation (a former CIA operative vouches for the voice’s authenticity), a vocal record that forms a key element of the narrative.

Shin died in 2006, North Korea’s Kim five years later, but Choi, age 89, is still alive, and “The Lovers and the Despot” is centered on her on-camera recollections.

It is the lovers’ part that takes up the first segment of the documentary, as Choi talks about her passion for acting, her popularity (she’s seen sharing the spotlight with Marilyn Monroe) and her relationship with Shin, whom she met, no surprise, on a movie set.

“He said we should make films together forever,” the actress remembers, but life as the director’s wife was problematic. Shin was a workaholic who never expressed emotion and who left Choi and their two adopted children (both now adults and participants in the film) for another woman.

In 1978, Choi went to Hong Kong to meet a woman she thought was a producer but was actually a North Korean agent. The actress was bundled onto a speedboat by some muscular guys (“Despot” offers some discreet re-creations) and taken to North Korea, where Kim himself met her on the dock.

Courteous and respectful, the absolute ruler seemed to Choi “like an artist who loved films.” But though he could be charm itself, Kim also let the actress know without saying it directly that “if I betrayed him, he’d kill me.”

Choi’s life in North Korea was initially one of enforced idleness involving pruning trees, planting a garden and taking long walks. “I was told what to eat, what to wear there was nothing of me left,” she remembers. “Like a doll I did what I was told.”

Director Shin, buffeted at the time by financial difficulties, soon went to Hong Kong looking for his ex-wife. He ended up being taken to North Korea as well, but his lot was initially not as smooth. He was imprisoned for years and took to writing letters to Kim promising, “If you release me, I will make good films for North Korea.”

Clearly a master at playing the long game, Kim Jong Il waited five years before reuniting actress and director, offering kind of an apology for the “misunderstanding” about the way they had been treated.

Over the next 27 months, often sleeping only a few hours per night, the couple made no less than 17 films for North Korea, including what Choi describes as the first love story ever seen on that country’s screens.

There was no question that Choi enjoyed the professional exposure, including a best actress prize at the Moscow Film Festival, that all this moviemaking gave her, and Shin is said to have enjoyed not having to worry about budgets for the first time in his life.

The director, one taped moment tells us, also enjoyed his closeness with the absolute ruler. “In a way we really hit it off,” Shin says. “When we meet he leaves his guards outside. He completely adores me.”

However, fears of what the autocrat might do to them if they fell from favor were intense, and the couple fled to the U.S. Embassy during a 1986 trip to Vienna and asked for political asylum. Their story took further unlikely turns -- Shin produced Disney’s “Three Ninjas,” of all things -- but nothing to match their North Korea years.

Running time 1 hour, 34 minutes.

Playing Laemmle’s Monica in Santa Monica, NoHo 7 in North Hollywood, Playhouse 7 in Pasadena.


The North Korean dictator who kidnapped two movie stars

The former North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il was a massive film buff, with a rumoured collection of around 20,000 videos. He loved Elizabeth Taylor movies and Sean Connery’s Bond. He was so obsessed with movies that, in 1978, he kidnapped the most famous actress in South Korea, Choi Eun-hee, and later her ex-husband, film director Shin Sang-ok, both reportedly snatched in from Hong Kong by North Korean agents. Choi was taken first, and when Shin went looking for her in Hong Kong, he was taken too, into the Hermit Kingdom. Former lovers, they were now reunited in captivity.

Kim Jong-il wanted them to help him make North Korea’s film industry the envy of the world. But Shin and Choi weren’t keen on the idea. It wasn’t until 1983, when the dictator was convinced the pair had been sufficiently ‘enlightened’, that he ushered them towards a movie camera. Three years later – eight years after they were kidnapped – the couple made their daring escape while in Vienna for a film festival.

This is the too-crazy-to-be-true story recounted in the new documentary The Lovers and the Despot. It details how the South Korean movie stars were snatched by North Korean agents in Hong Kong, how they transformed the North Korean movie industry – in which they made the cult Godzilla rip-off Pulgasari and filmed the nation’s first on-screen kiss – and how they made their escape. Shin died in 2006, but Choi is still alive, 89 years old. We spoke to filmmakers Robert Cannan and Ross Adam to learn more about this insane story, set in the most secretive state in the world.

The film uses secretly taped recordings of Kim Jong-il, made by the kidnapped movie stars at the time. What were your first thoughts when you heard those scuzzy recordings of the dictator’s voice?

Ross: Firstly, we were surprised that a dictator was being recorded in this fashion. It’s very unusual. I don’t think I’ve heard of another dictator being secretly recorded. And he’s just joking around in it. The way he describes the incarceration, he actually blames it on bureaucratic incompetence, it’s incredibly casual. It’s funny that he wasn’t prepared to admit his own responsibility to them about their lengthy imprisonment, that he would just blame it on his minions. Maybe that’s because it would have made for awkward conversation.

Kim Jong-il was obsessed with movies – he especially loved Sean Connery’s Bond. Do you think that’s what drove him to kidnap two South Korean movie stars?

Rob: That’s obviously the driving factor. From early on he knew that Shin was the top director, and he obviously knew who Choi was – the most famous actress in Korea. So he was a crazed fan, in a way. And he knew that the only way he could turn around the North Korean film industry and get the films to be watched outside of North Korea was by kidnapping the best from over the border, because he didn’t have anyone good enough from his own local film industry.

The couple were imprisoned for five years before they began to make movies. Why do you think the dictator took so long to get things going?

Ross: I think that the main thing was Shin, after arriving in North Korea, started to realise he didn’t want to be there at all, and, unlike Choi, decided to try and escape. And probably because he had a delusional sense of himself and how easy it might be to do that, he tried not once, but three or four times. And each time they put him into a worse camp. It was only when he started to show his appreciation of ‘The Dear Leader’, writing birthday letters and stuff like that, praising him, that the authorities started to think, ‘OK, it’s time for his release.’

It was a few more years before the couple made their escape. Was that length of time essential in earning Kim’s trust?

Rob: Yeah, they said afterwards that it was their plan from the beginning. Of course, it’s a convenient plan if they actually did want to make the most of the opportunity to make films with a blank cheque. But their story was that their only way to escape – which does make sense – was to go along with Kim’s plan, build trust, and get chances to go on foreign trips. Because it’s impossible to escape from North Korea, especially as they would have stuck out like a sore thumb if they had tried to run away. Shin found out how hard it was to try and get out of the country when he jumped on a freight train in one of his early escape attempts.

Choi Eun-hee, Kim Jong-il and Shin Sang-ok

In North Korea the couple were forced to make propaganda movies. Have you watched all the films they made during their incarceration in the country?

Rob: We watched the ones that they smuggled out. Not all of them. There were 17 in total over a two-year period, I think. A lot of them are available in the Ministry of Unification in South Korea, but they’re not easily watchable by people like you and me. It’s a very taboo subject.

The most famous film made during that period is probably Pulgasari, the North Korean Godzilla rip-off. Is it basically a communist version of Godzilla?

Ross: Yeah, it kind of is. The enemy is the evil, colonial Japanese. In a way, Shin was quite shrewd to avoid current politics by setting all the stories before the Korean War, so generally the enemy is the Japanese rather than South Korea. But yeah, it’s a kitschy monster movie. Apparently, Kim liked Godzilla, and they wanted their own Godzilla. They even hired the Japanese team that made a version of Godzilla they shipped 200 Japanese animators and special effects people over to North Korea. They all stayed in this complex and they couldn’t really mingle with the North Korean crew. And Shin would sort of go between both units and oversee everything.

Is it fair to say that Shin and Choi were North Korea’s first celebrity couple?

Rob: Yeah, and it may have got to a point where this became a problem, because I’m sure Kim wouldn’t have wanted anything that took admiration away from him in any way. But certainly Shin and Choi had these special privileges that other North Koreans wouldn’t have. For instance, Kim agreed that the studio they were building together could still be called ‘Shin Films’, because he wanted to publicise that the great Shin Films, previously of South Korea, had moved to North Korea because it’s a much better place to make films. So in a way it was the first privately named company.

If Kim Jong-il were alive today and granted you an interview, what would you ask him about this whole saga?

Rob: It might be fun to ask if he misses Shin on a personal level, because they seemed to have this weird bromance, which was obviously all part of a game and they were both manipulating each other. But they did have this shared obsession and ambition. And they did seem, at one stage, to be getting on. You hear Shin in his own words being concerned about betraying this man, because Kim gave him everything and he loved him, and it’s just so weird to hear him weighing up this dilemma. It’d be interesting to ask: did Kim really consider him a buddy? Because that was one of the sad things about Kim Jong-il: he didn’t really have proper friends he was surrounded by people terrified of saying the wrong thing.