The Lovers and the Despot

The Lovers and the Despot

Following the collapse of their glamourous romance, a celebrity director and actress are kidnapped by movie-obsessed dictator Kim Jong-il. Forced to make films in the world’s weirdest state, they get a second chance at love, but only one chance at escape…

In the aftermath of the Korean War, ambitious young film director Shin Sang-ok and actress Choi Eun-hee enter into a glamorous romance. They rise to the top of the South Korean film industry and are drawn into the inner circle of dictatorial President Park. Their groundbreaking films become instant sensations. But their movie-world idyll is shattered after Shin has a scandalous affair with another actress and confronts the President over censorship, who retaliates by shutting down his studio. Unable to reconcile, Choi and Shin divorce.

Then their lives take a bizarre turn. Choi is lured to Hong-Kong by the promise of work, but is bundled onto a boat and sedated. After a grueling sea voyage to North Korea she is welcomed ashore by whimsical dictator's son and movie-obsessive, Kim Jong-il, who imprisons her in his summerhouse.

Desperate to win Choi back, Shin searches for her in Hong Kong, but is kidnapped himself. Thrown into a brutal North Korean concentration camp, he must learn to endure punishment and ideological brainwashing if he ever wishes to reach Choi again. After five arduous years of indoctrination, Kim reunites the pair at a banquet…they are to be Kim's own puppet propaganda filmmakers and must act their parts on fear of death.

This they do to surreally extravagant lengths, all at the whim of the dictator's spoilt son. They soon have more movie-making resources than they could ever have imagined and the whole of North Korea clambering to see them on the silver screen. They are national heroes, pushing boundaries once again. Yet all the while they remain prisoners of the state - working under duress.

The couple's love for each other is rekindled, but they yearn for freedom. Knowing that direct escape from North Korea is impossible, they must find another way out. By raising the international profile of North Korean cinema over the years of their imprisonment, they gain enough trust with Kim that he lets them travel to the far fringes of the Iron Curtain for their productions, albeit highly chaperoned by North Korean agents.

After years of preparation, they form a daring and sophisticated escape plan involving film critics, secret tape recordings, the Berlin Film Festival, a Japanese concierge and the American Embassy. After an exciting taxi chase across Vienna, US diplomats and the CIA secrete them to  Washington - where they lie low after Kim Jong-il places a bounty on their heads. After the story breaks and becomes an international media event, they face intense scrutiny and investigation, before starting afresh in L.A. - and creating their own Hollywood happy ending!

Production notes

90 minutes

Rob Cannan and Ross Adam - Director

Natasha Dack - Producer

BFI press release: http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/news-bfi/announcements/three-films-selected-bfi-support-through-pitch-session-docfest