Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 23, 2018

The Lovers and the Despot

Filed under: Film,Korea — louisproyect @ 5:17 pm

Today I want to take a look at another very interesting film distributed by Magnolia but would like to start with a few words about the company’s origins and how to see its really fantastic collection through VOD at budget prices. It was founded in 2001 by Bill Banowsky and Eamonn Bowles with a major share of funding by Mark Cuban, the billionaire who has had a long-time commitment to art house cinema. In 2003, Cuban purchased Landmark Cinema, a string of 58 theaters specializing in foreign and independent films. One of them, the Landmark Sunshine on Houston St., was in the news recently when it fell victim to crushing N.Y. real estate realities.

After seeing and writing about Magnolia films for the past 15 years or so, I can assure you that they are at a consistently high level. Go to their website and browse through their inventory and you will see an amazing variety of first-rate films that can be seen for $2.99 on Youtube or other streaming outlets such as iTunes or Amazon, including the one discussed below that I watched last night.

“The Lovers and the Despot” documents the strange tale of two of South Korea’s film personalities who were kidnapped and spirited away in 1978 by North Korean agents in order to help realize the dreams of Kim Jong-il, the father of the current “despot” and the son of the family dynast Kim Il-sung who was still in power that year. Unlike his father, Kim Jong-il was less interested in reunifying Korea under the aging despot’s odd mixture of Confucianism and Stalinism than he was in producing films that could compete in the Cannes Film Festival and other glitzy gatherings that had hardly anything to do with the north’s austere values.

The first to be seized was actress Choi Eun-hee. Born in 1926, she was as famous in South Korea as Julia Roberts was in the USA. Still alive in 2015, when the documentary was made, she provides some stunning insights into the despot’s strange cinephilia that led to her captivity. During her time in the north, she made secret recordings of Kim Jong-il on a microcassette recorder that reveal him to be a far more complex figure than is generally understood. We hear him complaining bitterly why North Korean films are always so propagandistic. Why couldn’t they make films like the ones he loved, like Friday the 13th, Rambo and the Hong Kong action films that were to have such a huge impact on Quentin Tarantino.

We learn from the documentary that Kim Jong-il was raised in isolation from other children in a palace where he was served by the kind of staff you’d see serving royalty. Feeling lonely most of the time, his major source of consolation was foreign films. Eventually, he built up a library of 15,000 VHS cassettes that were what kept him from falling apart psychologically.

Six months after Choi Eun-hee’s abduction, North Korean agents seized her ex-husband, the director Shin Sang-ok who might be compared to Stephen Spielberg or Martin Scorsese at least in terms of his fame and fortune. When Choi Eun-hee was cast for one of his films, the two fell in love, got married and raised a family. Their children offer commentary on their parents in the film as well. Their parents ended up divorced after Shin had an affair with a younger actress. As you can see, South Korean film directors are not that different than their Hollywood counterparts.

In 1978, Shin Sang-ok got on the wrong side of the South Korean dictatorship—exactly why the film does not go into. Wikipedia states that most of the films he made in the 70s were flops but his biggest problem was pissing off Park Chung-hee, the military dictator who was arguably more despotic than the Kims. After Park closed down Shin studios, the director fell into dire straits.

Supposedly, Shin was abused by the North Koreans. Kept in prison, he tried to escape repeatedly and was tortured—at least according to his ex-wife who had reconciled with him after he turned up in the north. After a few years of being brainwashed and beaten mercilessly, he saw the light and became not only a supporter of the Dear Leader but willing to restart Shin studios in the north. Cranking out films at a pace that would make Woody Allen look like a slouch, the two lovers became major personalities in North Korea and enjoyed the kind of freedom that would be beyond the reach of the average citizen. After 11 years of living high off the hog, the two won political asylum from the US embassy in Vienna. Ironically, Kim Jong-il accused the USA of kidnapping the couple.

South Korea had little use for the two, with many politicians and journalists accusing them of taking part in an elaborate hoax. That the North Korean security forces were involved with kidnapping, however, is not that difficult to establish. Taking place between 1977 and 1983, there might have been hundreds of victims. Even the North admitted to abducting 13 Japanese citizens.

If you want to see an example of Shin’s work in the north, this Godzilla knock-off is on Youtube with English subtitles:

In 2009 I was fortunate enough to see four North Korean films at the Korea Society in N.Y. None of them were made by Shin and all of them were quite good. If they were available on Youtube or elsewhere, they would go a long way in showing a more human side of the people that Donald Trump wants to exterminate.

In 2009, none were available but all—thankfully—can be seen with English subtitles now.

Traces of Life: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CalkPIfkMhQ

The Tale of Chun Hyang: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WSzQyA88ejY

Wolmi Island: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OkKSMJ8vf18

The Flower Girl: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ey2fvPtBsiA

My favorite of the four is “The Flower Girl”, about which I had this to say in 2009:

Along with a number of other North Korean movies, “The Flower Girl” is analyzed by U.C. Santa Barbara professor Suk-Young Kim in a lecture titled “Kim Jong-il and North Korean Films” that can be seen online. Kim also gave a talk at the Korea Society on the opening night of the mini-festival that is not online, however. I cannot recommend her lecture highly enough since it is both illuminating for its insights into the role of North Korean movies and the video clips she discusses in the course of the lecture. You will see a longish excerpt from “The Flower Girl” as well as one from a remarkable Robin Hood/socialist type movie drawn from Korean legend that includes Hong-Kong type martial arts.

In framing her approach to North Korean movies, Kim explains why Kim Jong-il was so keen to promote the medium:

Now, why was film so important for Kim Jong-il, in addition to all the reasons that I laid out here? We tend to think that Kim Jong-il is a leader who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, which is true because he was the biological son of the founding father of North Korea, Kim Il-sung. But we have to think that North Korea is the first hereditary socialist country, where power to rule was passed down from father to the biological son. And before this was officialized, we did not know who the next leader of North Korea would be. I mean, it was certain that Kim Il-sung would handpick somebody before he passed away, but it wasn’t sure if it was going to be his son or somebody else in his political retinue.

So in a way, Kim Jong-il had to really work his way through — he had to use whatever talent he had to really pave the road to power. And he was — he is known to be an extremely talented artistic person by all accounts, and he tapped into his artistic talent to really prove his filial piety for his father, Kim Il-sung. And this is an extremely interesting fact if we consider how North Korea is still observing traditional Confucian values of patriarchy, and in this light, the nation itself is seen as an extended family structure. So to respect and preserve the authorial power of the patriarchal national leader was extremely important.

And another factor that plays into this rationale is that Kim Il-sung, the founding father of North Korea, lived long enough to have witnessed de-Stalinization campaign in the Soviet Union, and whatever happened to the Maoist legacy after the Culture Revolution. So he was extremely keen on preserving his legacy after death, and in this sense Kim Jong-il effectively used film to really create this mythical aura about his father and perpetuate his legacy by creating these everlasting images.


  1. In the 70’s there was still mass support for the North in the southern part of the country, precisely why the south then still required a dictatorship.

    It’s not unlikely that these fallen stars in fact defected as they later did again. More than a few people in the south defected to the North in those years.

    And after the widespread Korean anarchist movement was destroyed by both the North and the south, the only kind of “left” that remained in either of the Koreas was a Leninist nationalist variety that saw the DPRK as the vanguard for unity and liberation.

    Comment by J Scott — January 24, 2018 @ 9:03 am

  2. […] January, I reviewed “The Lovers and the Despot”, a fascinating documentary about how the father of North Korea’s current dictator was a bona […]

    Pingback by Life Itself | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — March 10, 2018 @ 9:57 pm

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