Documentarians Ross Adam and Rob Cannan chronicle a bizarre episode in film history with “The Lover and the Despot,” detailing the story of director Shin Sang-ok and actress Choi Eun-hee, who were brought to North Korea in 1978 at the behest of Kim Jong-il and forced to make movies for the isolated nation.
The duo ended up making 17 feature films for the regime while there. Adam and Cannan spoke to CBS News about trying to get to the bottom of their bizarre tale.
How did you first find out about this story?
Ross Adam: We’d kind of known about the story, I’m not really sure from where, but without any detail. It was only when we met up and bounced ideas around that we realized there was no documentary about their story. We thought there really was a rich story in it, so we decided to pursue it.
It’s such an absurd story. What about it were you most surprised to find out was true?
Rob Cannan: Probably that the story could actually be true. And not only that, but that there was a recording of a dictator who until that point -- and I believe since -- had not been heard speaking in public, and there was a seeming admission on tape where he openly says that he had them brought over to improve North Korean cinema, and he apologizes that they spent a bit a bit of time in prison -- it was all his aide’s fault, not his fault. To really get our hands on that material seemed pretty special.
How did you decide the right tone for presenting this?
RA: It was a tricky balance, because our aim is to be as objective as possible to connect people with the reality of the story. This isn’t a fiction film, this is a documentary. But at the same time, we want it to be as cinematic as possible to really do justice to the story, as it’s set in the world of cinema. We were looking represent the colorful, cinematic language of Shin and Choi. This is the world that they were used to. They got caught up in their own kind of melodrama.
Do you have a sense of how things have changed between the regimes of Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un?
RC: I don’t think a lot has changed. With each son taking over, they have to work a lot harder to convince the people that they are who they say they are. Kim Il-sung really was regarded as a revolutionary hero who threw the colonial Japanese out of the country, and a lot of that was exaggerated and propagandized from Day One. But he really did have this mythical, godlike status, and it was much easier for Kim Jong-il to generate the propaganda machine that helped perpetuate this idea about his father. Kim Jong-un has to work harder. The difference with Kim Jong-un is that he was a kind of last resort. He wasn’t groomed from an earlier age like Kim Jong-il. He had two older brothers who may have been the leader.
The big difference is it’s now much harder for the regime to control information. Privileged North Koreans have cellphones now. They’re not supposed to be able to contact the outside world with them, but it does happen. It’s gradually getting easier for them to get information from the outside world and gradually work out the truth about what’s going on.
Recently North Korea invited a group of YouTubers to visit and post videos about how great it is there. Does that feel like it could be a 21st century of the Shin and Choi situation?
RA: Maybe North Korea is embracing modern methods. It certainly hasn’t changed its general M.O. beyond that.