May 21, 2017

The Lovers & the Despot: Live Large

Ross Adam's and Robert Canaan's crazy documentary The Lovers & the Despot tells the type of true story that makes you realize just how incredibly boring your life truly is. First there's glamour: Actress Choi Eun-hee becomes the muse of auteur Shin Sang-ok; together they make such Shin Sang-ok with whom she makes such classics as My Mother and Her Guest, Red Scarf, To the Last Day... There's drama: They marry, adopt two babies, he has an affair (with a younger actress) that produces two children so Choi and Shin get divorced. There's more drama: Choi gets kidnapped by North Korean agents while visiting Hong Kong; Shin gets kidnapped while looking for Choi who has officially "disappeared." Then Kim gets imprisoned for five years in North Korea while Choi's forced to pose for pictures as a model defector. There's more art: Kim's released from prison, the lovers reunite and they make 17 movies in three years while still held captive by dictator Kim Jong-il. (One of those films — Sogum — earns Choi the best actress award at the Moscow International Film Festival.) Then there's even more drama: They defect to the West and set up shop in Hollywood. There's a weird coda: He ends up creating the kid-friendly franchise, his last film being 3 Ninjas Knuckle up.

All of this is fascinating even as we're told in periodic asides that skeptics out there question the veracity of Shin's and Choi's story. What if they made it all up? What if they purposefully defected to the North as a way to resume their romance and revitalize their careers? What if Shin never really was in prison? What if all those shots of Choi smiling are because she really was happy all the time? What if it's all a big lie? But even if that were the truth, theirs would remain a none-the-less fascinating tale. I'd like to say I totally believe Choi whose interviewed extensively for the film. But I have to acknowledge first that she happens to be a great actress. It's either the performance of a lifetime or a lifetime greater than any performance could ever hope to be.