3 / 5 stars
Say what you will about the recently and ridiculously debated “death of film,” there’s no debate that the documentary is at an apex of sorts. From the near-flawless HBO library to the countless Netflix offerings (music and food a specialty), you can point a remote in any direction and likely hit a high-quality documentary. That’s raised the proverbial bar for doc filmmakers who shoot for theatrical distribution – a tough task considering the documentary format is as familiar to audiences as ever while having built-in storytelling limitations. But, and here’s the biggie, plenty of documentaries are gripping and effective even on your living room’s widescreen. Short story: If you’re looking to hit theaters, the talking-head story may not be enough. That’s the world The Lovers and the Despot is part of.
It’s not that this espionage-like story about North Korea’s alleged kidnapping of two film celebrities isn’t intriguing. But it lacks the extra big-screen sorcery that elevates a documentary to being worthy of your local theater. You can see work as solid, and as stolid, as The Lovers and the Despot right now at home – and you may not gain much extra seeing this one in the theater.
The film’s a slight letdown from directors Ross Adam and Robert Canaan. The headlines from which they’ve based their movie are far more fascinating than the onscreen result, making The Lovers and the Despot a fair thriller inside one of the best pitches of the year: Kim Jong-Il and the North Korean government, desperate to develop a world-renowned film industry (or even just one world-renowned film) lures South Korean actress Choi Eun-hee to Hong Kong and then kidnaps her. When her longtime flame and frequent director Shin Sang-ok goes to search for her, he meets the same fate.
A freakish true-life story, to be sure, especially once the couple begins living and working in Kim’s hermit world. The events are perhaps so bizarre that it would be unusually difficult to produce a film to match the striking shock of the real thing – but that’s what filmmakers do. (I’ll offer Bart Layton [The Imposter] and Laura Poitras [The Oath, Citizenfour] as two documentary directors who do this with flying colors.)
It’s easy to see the difficult time they’d have digging deep into source material, with North Korea being so painstakingly secretive – especially in decades past. Adam and Canaan score when they rely on first-person accounts from Choi (an emotional treat) as well as a couple of espionage operatives. They use anonymous-style re-creations to add color and tone – blended with some eerie stock footage – but you’ve seen the technique before. Here it exists more for visual variety than an attempt to bring to life what couldn’t be recorded.
But let’s consider how creative the execution could have been, for instance, if Adam and Canaan pulled back the curtain on the making of the re-creations, showing how they had to select alternate locations to make their points. It would have fit nicely into the concept of secrecy and added a filmmaking element to a movie that’s ultimately about making movies. Just a thought.
There are plenty of reasons to see The Lovers and the Despot, especially with North Korea continuing to be one of the great geo-political curiosities of the last 50 years. The film features recorded conversations that claim to have offered Western spies the sound of Kim’s voice for the first time – illustrated with a shot of tape players that we see again and again. Beyond that surface, however, is the odd relationship between the leader and his “captives,” worthy of another 90 minutes on its own. You’ll get just enough of the picture to stay involved… on your screen of choice, big, small or otherwise.