An Interview with Rob Cannan and Ross Adam

| September 23, 2016

The complexities of how we create and consume narrative are compellingly explored in Rob Cannan and Ross Adam’s documentary The Lovers and the Despot.

The story follows South Korean filmmaker Shin Sang-ok and actress Choi Eun-hee who meet and fall in love in 1950’s post-war Korea. In 1978, after a string of successful films bringing Shin and Choi to the top of Korean society, Choi is kidnapped by North Korean agents in Hong Kong and taken to meet Kim Jong-il, a great admirer of hers. While searching for Choi, Shin is also kidnapped and imprisoned in a North Korean jail. Five years later, the two are reunited by the movie-obsessed Kim who declares them his personal filmmakers. As Shin and Choi plan their escape, they begin producing films for Kim and develop a relationship with the dictator that causes many to question whether they were kidnapped, or in fact willingly defected.

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Cannan and Adam about their filmmaking process, and how they approached such a controversial episode in Korean popular culture.

MV: I understand that the project took a bit of time to get off the ground because not only were you dealing with getting permission from the family, but also competing with other prospective productions. Can you talk a little bit about the production history, and how you first became familiar with the story? Have you always been intrigued by North Korea and its regime?

RC: Well, North Korea is especially interesting to filmmakers because it’s such a strange and unique place. When we first jumped into the story we were aware that other filmmakers had approached the family. In fact, when you hear about the story, you wonder why hasn’t this been made into a great film already. We were a little flummoxed about this, but nevertheless, we decided to go over there and speak to Choi and the Shin Foundation to see if we could charm them a bit.

We had to work very, very hard and made several trips to Korea to meet with Choi and her representatives. In the end, Choi decided that she liked us and our approach to the material. Besides just the kidnapping aspect, we saw some romance in the story and I think she liked that. I also think she liked the fact that we were Western because she had turned down Korean and Japanese filmmakers whom she felt were perhaps too close to the story; it’s so well- known and controversial over there. Whereas she thought we would be more objective.

MV: How is the story of Shin and Choi’s ordeal perceived in South Korea today? Are there many people who still question how the events unfolded?

RC: Yes, there certainly are. While making the film, we met a lot of people who questioned the events. You see, with Shin and Choi’s ordeal, the opinions of the Korean people have been a bit black and white. Everyone we met was either like well you know that’s not true don’t you? Or, of course they were kidnapped and it’s all true. It’s a funny sort of cultural thing, and maybe they’re just not questioning the details in the same way we do in the West. Actually, we’re very intrigued to know how these new details are going to play out there because I think a lot of people feel they know the story, but they don’t know all of the details.

RA: Yeah, there is as much skepticism as there is belief, and I think it comes from this culture of propaganda that lives in both the north and the south of the peninsula.

RC: And it’s a culture of saving face and one’s reputation. If you have a stain against your name it’s very hard to overcome it. In a way, Shin was blacklisted because there was a period where pretty much everyone thought he had defected. It’s understandable because while he and Choi were in North Korea they were putting out messages to the media saying they were very happy working with Kim Jong-il. Later of course they would say that they had to do that in order to build trust with Kim and have a chance to escape. But once South Koreans heard Shin in his own words say how wonderful it was to be working with Kim, it was difficult for them to readjust their way of thinking.

So Shin was felt by many to be a traitor. One of the reasons they stayed in the US so long after their escape, besides the fact that Shin wanted to try and make films in Hollywood, was that it took another ten years for their names to be officially cleared by the Korean authorities and were welcomed back into the country. Before that announcement it actually would have been dangerous for them to return because they could have been locked away for defection.

MV: And did Shin make any more films upon his return to South Korea?

RC: He made a couple more films that didn’t do very well. As far as we know they were in the Korean language, but Shin had real problems financing them, and I’m not sure if any of the money came from South Korea. When he initially returned he struggled to find support from the South Korean government and the film industry who had essentially turned their backs on him. I mean, he had a difficult time with the film industry anyways because even when he was the biggest producer and director in South Korea everyone else was jealous of him and he had acquired a lot of enemies. So, considering how prolific and big he was at the time, he was pretty ostracized from the South Korean film industry and indeed from South Korean film history to some extent.

MV: What happened to the 17 features that Shin and Choi produced during their stay in North Korea? We saw some clips of them in the film, but I’m wondering if any are currently available?

RA: Some of the North Korean films were smuggled out. There’s a print or two in the Ministry of Reunification in Seoul. They’re not on wide release. The only film that made it out of North Korea and was screened elsewhere was Pulgasari, the Godzilla-like North Korean monster movie. So they’re not readily available to viewers.

RC: And those 17 projects did include films that they simply oversaw, with Shin acting as a sort of executive director and training other North Korean filmmakers. So in a sense they produced 17 films but Shin only directed five. They did smuggle those five out and we’ve seen them because Choi and The Shin Films Foundation has them, but they’re not technically available apart from Pulgasari.

MV: And what did you think of them? Did they comprise a wide range of subject matter?

RC: Well, Shin worked in many genres so they’re all quite different. He obviously had to be very careful in his choice of subject matter, and the way he avoided making anything too political or contemporary was by setting the stories before the Korean war, were people suffer at the hands of the colonial Japanese rather than South Koreans or Americans. They’re historical films. A lot of them look pretty dated, but there are charming aspects to them. Of the North Korean films, I think the one we like most is the musical Love, Love, My Love, just because it has catchy songs and is a very sweet story. In fact, it was the first North Korean love story. You see, North Koreans had never seen a kiss on screen before. We interviewed a North Korean defector who said that when people watched the film, they were so innocent they asked each other did people actually know how to kiss in those days? So, he certainly pushed boundaries in North Korea as much as he could.

MV: To my knowledge, North Korean officials did not want to participate in the making of this documentary, but I’m wondering if they’ve ever commented on the episode involving Shin and Choi? Has there been any statement regarding your film as well?

RC: There hasn’t been any reaction from them about our film. At the time, when Shin and Choi escaped, the North Korean government did announce that Shin and Choi had run away with state money, which in some ways was true because there was a bank account in Vienna that Shin had access to for the purposes of starting some co-productions. Shin and Choi later said this was not enough compensation for what they went through.

But the North Korean defectors we met told us that all North Koreans, immediately after Shin and Choi escaped, were called to their local seminar halls and told that Shin and Choi were just greedy capitalists and had run away with the nation’s money. They betrayed the nation and were never to be spoken of again. So, they just became a taboo subject.

MV: The editing of the film and the reenactments are done quite skillfully, and I’m wondering how you decided to structure the film in the way you did? Did you always know you wanted to present the material in this way?

RA: We always had a rough idea of how the film would be structured. Obviously we didn’t have all the pieces, including the tapes, which were the major aspect that would inform the structure and its evolution. When starting the reconstructions, we knew we didn’t want to undermine the reality of what the viewer was watching. Rather than getting completely caught up in the nature of reconstruction, we wanted the reenactments to convince the audience that they were with these characters watching the story unfold. We wanted the reconstructions to act as a level of separation between any archival tape or interview presented, and never wanted it to be so choppily edited that it turns out to be a random hodgepodge of mediums. Apart from that, there was just a general preference for the reality archive or interview when possible, and only to result to a reconstruction when there was nothing else that could tell that part of the story.

RC: And as Ross said, it was an evolving process. Sometimes we would do an interview and a little more story detail would emerge; informing us of something we might want to shoot. Because our subjects’ time was so precious, we had to keep moving forward and shooting even when we weren’t necessarily ready and would have liked to have done more research.

MV: Shin is quite a compelling character, and on the surface it seems as if he’s entered into this Faustian pact with Kim Jong-il. But in fact, Shin’s intentions aren’t quite clear, and you begin to question who is the master and who is the manipulator. Did your opinion of Shin change as your research into the incident progressed?

RC: This Faustian pact was one of the things we found most interesting early on, and whether he went willingly to North Korea or was kidnapped. In many ways it’s a story of temptation. How conflicted was Shin, and did he stay in the country longer than he needed to? We found that really fascinating, but it wasn’t until we got our hands on a tape of him telling his story to a Japanese friend while in captivity, that we suddenly had Shin in his own words weighing the pros and cons of working with Kim or betraying him. Finding that tape was a key moment because it enabled us to structure the film around that question.

So of course without the tapes you wouldn’t be able to explore that relationship between Shin and Kim in anything like we did. We love the fact you hear them getting along more and more, and there is this kind of game going on, and sometimes you’re not sure if Shin is sounding like he’s actually being brainwashed, or is it all a ruse? He would later say he was just building trust with Kim so that he would get a chance to escape later. All of these kinds of ambiguities we found really fascinating.

MV: You also do something unexpected in portraying Kim Jong-il as more than just a cliché bad guy. I think understandably so, it’s easy to see him as a ruthless dictator and nothing else, but like all human beings, you show the complexity of his character without excusing the terrible atrocities he committed. From your interviews with Choi, and the making of this film, did your idea of Kim Jong-il change at all?

RA: Well, our opinion of him as a terrible dictator has not changed. We always wanted to get behind the caricature and see how he became this man who terrorized a nation. And as it shows in the film, he had a very peculiar upbringing. It was an insular upbringing in Pyongyang, which itself is already an insular part of North Korea. He didn’t really have childhood friends in the normal sense, and only experienced the world through movies and was groomed to be a leader. The idea that this man would become a normal, well-adjusted member of society is obviously a bit ridiculous. That doesn’t mean we should have extreme sympathy for him, it’s just an understanding. That’s what documentary is trying to do; getting you to understand terrible things and terrible people. What’s the point of putting a dictator at a remove from oneself? He’s part of humanity as well. We have to understand how he came to be.

RC: And how Choi refers to him really surprised us. We expected her to be much more critical of Kim Jong-il, and she wasn’t. We thought is she afraid to be too critical? This was right before Kim Jong-il died, so we thought maybe she was scared of certain repercussions. But it became apparent that there was some level of Stockholm syndrome going on with Choi, and she did feel guilty about running away. So we also wanted our portrayal of Kim to reflect how Choi experienced him, and we had to acknowledge that not all of that was bad. She did find him charming and intelligent, and in the film you hear her say that she felt he was almost like a frustrated artist, and in many ways that’s what he was. That doesn’t excuse the terrible suffering he’s inflicted on his people, but we certainly wanted a more nuanced portrait than the caricature that’s been painted in other things that we’ve seen.

MV: Kim Jong-il seems to use movies as a weapon in many ways, and it seems to me that the documentary filmmaker often finds himself to be a weapon as well. When you put a camera in someone’s hands often they’re able to go into situations they might not otherwise pursue. Is this something the two of you have found to be true as well?

RC: Definitely, and I think that’s one of things I like about documentary is that it gives you access into places and people you normally never would. It’s a kind of protection as well being behind the camera.

MV: Watching the film, you can really sense the passion you two have for your subjects, and I’m wondering what kinds of stories attract you the most?

RC: It sounds obvious, but really anything extraordinary. We look for stories that are out of everyday life, and take people on a journey they thought was impossible.

RA: We expect all of these stories to have some personal connection. In this case, it was a director who had been tempted by this Faustian pact, and how he acts under these unusual circumstances.

RC: As crazy as the story seems, this is a narrative about what we do, which is trying to tell stories and make films, and that’s what made it all the more urgent for us to tell it.

About the Author:

Matthew Vasiliauskas is a graduate of Columbia University. His work has appeared in publications such as Conjunctions, Berlin’s Sand Literary Journal, Chicago Literati and The Pennsylvania Review. Matthew currently lives and works in Los Angeles.
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