The Lovers and the Despot full movie review - Compelling story but not compelling storytelling
This film is a shining example of a concept that many filmmakers grapple with today: simply presenting an intriguing story, then stepping back and turning on a camera does not assure a successful film.
This failure of execution is of particular death to a documentary because the whole point is connection with the audience on an emotional level, thereby creating engagement and usually suspense --- suspense often much more cogent because it's not fiction. Talented doc-makers can achieve this with virtually any subject: food, talking-head philosophers, even type-settings ("Helvetica").
You'd think a doc about two filmmakers, Choi and Shin, kidnapped separately, then reunited and held against their will by a deranged dictator would be a snap to pull off.
But The Lovers and The Despot largely fails to achieve more than minimal engagement (unless, I guess, if you've never heard of the Kim dynasty or North Korea) because it rarely scratches the surface of the event itself or even the Koreas most of us know only from news footage. The film's pacing is extremely problematic in its sluggishness. It seems improbable to NOT know the basic premise even before going into this film: Struggle, abduction, pretend submission, veiled surveillance of the enemy, and escape. Yet it's forty minutes into the film before we exit act one and Choi is taken.
Yes, the Kims and particularly Kim Jong Il are huge mysteries. You could argue they are way more fascinating than Shin and Choi (who come off many times as shallow and facile. I doubt this, but when asked what films she is proud of Choi says "the ones that win awards"). Do we learn much about Choi's time --- FIVE YEARS --- with the dictator? No. It sounds for the most part as if she were left alone. I'm not discounting or minimizing Choi and Shin's ordeal. I'm attempting to relay how ineffective and downright boring much of this film is because the director, Paul Courtenay Hyu gives us so little information via interviews to engage with. For example, Shin obviously suffered after being sent to SIX camps after attempting escapes. How? No one knows or bothers to tell us.
I'm sure this film will have more resonance with viewers who have first-hand experience with totalitarianism. But that's not engaging with the film itself, it's engaging with the issue. We never get inside Choi or Shin's heads except to sympathize with their truly horrific ordeal of separation and that's a real shame. I feel this is largely the director's fault and the editing doesn't freshen anything either. For the most part the cutting is what you'd expect from a standard Behind The Scenes bonus feature, matching bits of Shin's film to the narrative in a numbing predictable way.
It's too bad but not too surprising to find many to this day don't believe Choi and Shin's story. This film doesn't go far in convincing anyone that it's beyond fiction, and that's the real tragedy since I do believe it's fact.