In 1978, North Korea kidnapped the South Korean film star Choi Eun-hee and, separately, the director Shin Sang-ok, her ex-husband and longtime collaborator. Kim Jong-il demanded that they create a great North Korean cinema, and together they made seven movies before escaping in 1983. Robert Cannan and Ross Adam's documentary account of Choi and Shin's stint as the dictator's son's personal moviemakers bristles with bizarre, memorable detail. The first words Kim Jong-il speaks to Choi are "Aren't I small like a midget's turd?"; some terrifying footage of a nationalistic throng waving pink blossoms looks like the Wizard of Oz's poppy field ready to march off to war.
Cannan and Adam's interviewees -- Choi, intelligence agents, film critics -- tell the story with more suspense than talking heads usually muster. In later life, after their escape from North Korea, Shin would be accused of having been a willing participant in the dictator's dream. The Lovers and the Despot emphasizes his suffering, his escape attempts and then -- in the years that Shin directed with Kim Jong-il as a producer -- his public statements of pride in his work. It's not at all unreasonable to believe that the director, who had so often struggled to secure financial backing in South Korea, could simultaneously exhibit pleasure in the resources given to him by his captor/benefactor and still be eager to escape. The film is brisk and fascinating, ultimately moving, but also less rich than it might have been, skipping over pertinent questions: What movies did Kim Jong-il demand? And within those dictates, under that pressure, did Shin and Choi -- now remarried -- still achieve artistry?