Story of famous South Korean couple abducted by dictator at Sundance

 24 Jan 2016 - 11:30

Story of famous South Korean couple abducted by dictator at Sundance

 

Park City, United States: The stranger-than-fiction story about a famous South Korean film director and a glamorous actress abducted by North Korea's movie-obsessed Kim Jong-il has premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.

"The Lovers and the Despot," a documentary by British filmmakers Ross Adam and Robert Cannan, traces the bizarre tale of director Shin Sang-ok and actress Choi Eun-hee, the golden couple of South Korean cinema in the 1960s.

"We approached this project with an open mind but, like most people, when you first hear the story, it does seem too fantastic to be true," Cannan said. "Essentially our opinion shifted that way and this way as we made the film."

The famous couple were married and the toast of the town with their two adopted children until their divorce over Shin's affair with another woman. They eventually fell from grace in their country and ended up bankrupt.

As they struggled to revive their careers, both were kidnapped on orders of movie-mad Kim Jong-il, who was bent on using them to make films that could compete on the international stage. 

At the time, Kim had not yet succeeded his father as North Korea's leader.

Choi was the first to be abducted in 1977, while on a trip to Hong Kong where she was lured to discuss a movie deal.

Shin was snatched soon after when he traveled to Hong Kong in search of his ex-wife, with whom he had remained close. He was held in a North Korean prison for four years before being reunited with Choi.

Realizing their predicament, the couple cooperated with Kim, producing a series of movies and winning his trust.

'Conversations with Kim'

They were allowed to travel to Europe to attend film festivals and managed a daring escape in 1989 while in Vienna to sign a movie deal, and sought asylum in the United States.

Chin died in 2006 but Choi, who now lives in Seoul, provided much of the narrative in the documentary along with the couple's son and daughter and archival footage of the era.

Speculation that such disappearances were "voluntary defections" was common in the 1960s and 70s, and the Shin-Choi case was no exception. However, the initial doubts died down when Seoul officially announced the pair had been abducted.

Cannan and Adam said they became more and more convinced of the couple's story as they researched the project and examined conversations with Kim that they had secretly recorded and smuggled out during their escape.

"There was no evidence to say that Shin and Choi did go willingly to North Korea," Adam said. "The only real evidence we could find was these tape-recordings of the conversations with Kim Jong-il.

"And once we were aware of this, it became more difficult to construct a film around the mystery."

Still, they said, it is clear from pictures of the couple during their captivity -- in which they are portrayed smiling and attending lavish receptions hosted by Kim -- that they had developed a sort of Stockholm Syndrome, identifying with their captor.

That was especially true of Shin, who was living out his filmmaker's dream of making mega-budget movies without having to worry about money. 

"This is a story about a filmmaker who gets everything, but at a price," Cannan. "He's making films in a very oppressive climate, with his producer as a tyrant."

AFP