Director and Producer Shin Sang-ok and his wife, actress Choi Eun-hee, were the ultimate power couple in the South Korean film industry during the 60’s and the 70’s.
Upon establishing Shin Film, the pair went on to produce several acclaimed films through the 1960s which garnered international recognition for South Korea at various film festivals.
The careers of the couple, dubbed as the “Brangelina of ‘70s South Korea,” however, came to an abrupt end after being kidnapped by the previous North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, for the purpose of making quality movies for the regime.
Their bizarre story is the subject of a 98-minute documentary by filmmakers Robert Cannan and Ross Adam called, “The Lovers & the Despot,” which is set to premiere in Los Angeles and New York on Sept. 23.
Choi was abducted and taken to North Korea to meet Kim Jong-il in 1978. Six months later, Shin was abducted was kidnapped as well. After being imprisoned for three years, the couple would be reunited and instructed by Kim Jong-il to make films that would gain global recognition for North Korea’s film industry.
In 1986, after having created several films for the North Korean dictator, Choi and Shin were able to seek help from a U.S. embassy after escaping North Korean authorities while in Vienna.
“We wanted to get behind the man [Kim],” Adam said told Kore Asian Media. “We didn’t want to just portray a caricature. We wanted to know why and how he became the man he did. That’s all we were doing – pulling back the curtain as much as we could.”
The film contains interviews with Choi, her children and witnesses of their escape. It also features secretly recorded voice of Kim and archival footage of the era and some reenactments,
During the period of their abduction, Choi revealed that Shin was experiencing hard times following a successful movie career. Due to his infidelity, they had also just underwent a divorce.
It was Choi who was first taken while on a trip to Hong Kong — she was abducted and brought to North Korea by boat. She had been reportedly enticed by a female producer who turned out to be a North Korean spy. When Shin sought her out, he was abducted as well.
They would later reunite and get remarried during their five years in North Korea. While under the service of Kim, they were tasked to create movies for North Korea in hopes of bringing the North Korean film industry to international acclaim.
During an international film festival in Vienna, Shin and Choi managed to escape from their hotel room and sought assistance from Americans.
To this day, there is still a significant number of South Koreans who are skeptical on where their allegiance lies, yet her children have been willing to participate in the interviews for the film.
For some South Koreans, Shin was a traitor who went to North Korea willingly. “[Their children] knew that Western filmmakers might be different from native filmmakers in regard to impartiality,” Cannan was quoted as saying.
The U.K.-produced documentary, which was first premiered at Sundance, will be released in South Korea just a day before its premiers in New York and in Los Angeles next Friday. It will also be available on Amazon Video and iTunes.