Documentaries often depict true events concerning big business, pollution, corruption, crime, racism, etc. But Rob Cannan and Ross Adams’ documentary, "The Lovers and the Despot" is both factual and unbelievable. Plus, it's one of the strangest stories about filmmakers ever recorded. 

And not because it’s gruesome or horrifying, but because it deals with the separate kidnappings of an acclaimed filmmaking couple by the Supreme Leader of North Korean who frankly wanted his country to have better movies.

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And no, this isn’t an update of the satirical Seth Rogen/James Franco film, "The Interview."

'The Lovers and the Despot' within cultural history

In the 1950’s, Shin Sang-ok was one of the top directors in South Korea, as was actress Choi Eun-hee. Shin and Choi met on a movie set and it wasn’t long before they were married. But by the mid-1970s, the couple was teetering. Although adept at directing, Shin didn’t know how to run a studio and was very much in debt. He also had taken up with a younger actress, fathering two children.

In 1978, Shin and Choi divorced, leaving Choi broke with their two adopted children.

Needing work, Choi traveled to Hong Kong for a business meeting with a seemingly respectable film company. But a trip to the beach turned into a kidnapping, and Choi found herself drugged and waking up in North Korea to meet Kim Jong-il

A few weeks later, Shin also traveled to Hong Kong looking for his missing ex-wife and was kidnapped as well. But for Shin, there were years of brainwashing and detention centers before reuniting with Choi and meeting North Korea’s soon-to-be ruler.

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'The Lovers' become North Korea’s premiere filmmakers

As a cinema fan, Kim Jong-il wanted to elevate his country’s films, so why not entice, i.e., kidnap South Korea’s top filmmakers? Once in Kim’s inner circle, Shin and Choi were immediately enlisted to work. In a little over two years the couple made 17 films. 

Gaining some recognition within the Eastern European film community and traveling to festivals, Shin and Choi began to plot an escape. But would the West believe such an extraordinary tale? Or would they think that the two filmmakers had simply defected to North Korea for consistency of film work and readily available financing?

'The Lovers and the Despot' as a documentary

The documentary presents an astounding story that is timely in its telling.

Yet one wishes the film dove deeper into examining Choi and Shin’s lives off the film set during their captivity.

For instance, what was life like for Choi before Shin’s arrival? Was she under house arrest except when accompanying Kim? Did she work as an advisor on other films or artistic events? 

And, after Shin’s arrival, who set the grueling pace of shooting 17 films over a short time period? Did Kim ever offer to bring their children over to North Korea and the couple refused? Or were Shin and Choi playing a great act, and pretending not to acknowledge their families at all?

A few moments describing Choi and Shin’s personal lives during this period, plus their reunion with their children upon their escape would have been welcome. 

And if this material were intentionally skipped due to government debriefings, then this insight would be enlightening to audiences as well.

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Even with these open-ended questions, "The Lovers and the Despot" is still a unique and compelling film.

Having premiered in the World Documentary Competition at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, "The Lovers and the Despot" was picked up by Magnolia Films and opens in New York and Los Angeles on September 23.