[The Lovers and The Despot opens in theaters Friday, 9/23/16 – more information on screenings here]
Film Courage: When did you first hear of the 1978 abductions of South Korean actress Choi-Eun-hee and her (then) ex-husband, director Shin Sang-ok? How soon after were you inspired to begin the documentary?
Robert Cannan: I must have read an article online. I can’t remember where or when exactly, but it stuck in the back of my mind as a mythical tale that may or may not be true. Either way, it must surely be too good a story for the rights to still be available. It was only after a meeting with Ross Adam (co-writer/co-director/co-producer) to bounce ideas in 2010 that we discovered we had both been thinking about it and decided to find out if the rights were available.
Film Courage: How did you meet your collaborator Ross Adam?
Robert: We met at university, studying English Literature. We spent a lot of time watching films together and talking about making films. We liked the same directors. We had collaborated on a number of short-form projects, music videos, etc. before we found this feature length idea to collaborate on.
“…Quite a few South Koreans wondered why Westerners were telling ‘their story’ and why South Koreans hadn’t done this. There was competition to get the rights, but Choi and her family were clearly wary of South Koreans or even Japanese doc directors telling their story. It seemed they felt they would be too close to the story and come with preconceptions.”
Rob Cannan, co-director of THE LOVERS AND THE DESPOT
Film Courage: How long have you been planning the film?
Robert: A long time. From inception to finish took about 6 years. There was an initial phase of about 2 years, which involved researching and planning whilst simultaneously trying to secure the principle rights and raise development finance. Then we started shooting interviews, while continuing to research, source more contributors and archive, secure more production finance, etc.
Film Courage: How long did the process take? How easy was it to obtain video interviews of Choi-Eun-hee, her children and other featured interviews?
Robert: The first big hurdle was to persuade Choi Eun-hee to take part. There was an initial phase of pitching our ideas to her and her representatives and then getting to know her overall several trips to Seoul and various meetings, usually over large lunches. Once she decided we would be the filmmakers she would entrust with her story, we then had to tackle a second phase of negotiating, a long-form contract about all the details and additional rights we would require, with her representatives and lawyers. This took a lot longer than expected – another 6 months or so, using up most of our development finance on legal fees and interpreters and nearly fell through more than once. But when we finally had the contract signed, Choi and her family made themselves freely available for interview and were very supportive. Some of the other characters you see in the film took a lot longer to find, through detective work and some great researchers working with us.
Film Courage: Is it surprising that some doubt the validity of the kidnapping or particular events?
Robert: It’s not that surprising, firstly because it seems like such a fantastical story – that a dictator would kidnap his favorite director and movie star to make movies for him. But in particular for South Koreans, who are much more aware of the various difficulties Shin faced in the South before he disappeared, it seems like too much of a coincidence that he would be kidnapped at that time. He had just fallen out with the South Korean president of the time, Park Chung-hee (father of the current President Park of South Korea) over various issues including censorship and his affair with a younger actress didn’t go down well with the conservative society at the time. His studio had been forcibly closed and he owed money to creditors all over town. And then, when he finally did resurface working for North Korea, he gave news conferences in Eastern Europe saying he was delighted to be working with Kim. Of course he would later say he had to say that under duress and to gain trust in order to escape, but it was hard for many South Koreans to change their minds about him after all that.
Film Courage: What similarities and differences did you encounter versus your 2008 documentary Three Miles North of Molkom? How much did that documentary prepare you for LOVERS?
Robert: In terms of shooting and production not at all, because Molkom was observational and shot in one go over three weeks. In terms of the long financing road, perhaps a bit – being prepared for continual knockbacks and hurdles. Perhaps most in the editing process – having faith that the story is there somewhere, but persisting in trying different ways of telling it, not being afraid to experiment a bit before finding the best way of doing things with the available material.
Robert: The film is being theatrically released this weekend (Friday September 23rd, 2016) in the US and UK, as well as South Korea, Japan and a few other Asian and European countries and also out on VOD. DVD will follow then early next year. It will then be on TV in more countries and eventually on Netflix worldwide. Curiously, North Korea is included on the Netflix worldwide deal. Maybe there’s just one account, belonging to you-know-who.
Film Courage: How long did the entire film take from inception to final cut?
Robert: About 6 years. But even final cut didn’t feel like the end, as we’ve since had months of festivals (starting with Sundance), securing deals and promoting the release, as well as some final tweaking in post production before the release.
Film Courage: Did you encounter any opposition to making the film?
Robert: Not so much opposition, although quite a few South Koreans wondered why Westerners were telling ‘their story’ and why South Koreans hadn’t done this. There was competition to get the rights, but Choi and her family were clearly wary of South Koreans or even Japanese doc directors telling their story. It seemed they felt they would be too close to the story and come with preconceptions.
Film Courage: From the festival screenings, what has been the audience reaction? Any notable comment from a viewer that you care to share?
Robert: The festival audiences have been great. They are always keen to find out more details behind the story in the Q&As, so we tend to get the same kinds of questions. It’s impossible to put all the story detail into a 90-minute feature, so we expect people to want to know about the stuff we had to leave out and take it as a good sign that they are fascinated by the story. No one comment sticks out, but we were very intrigued by a young woman who said she worked for an NGO that smuggled DVDs into North Korea and she asked what we thought about North Koreans being able to watch our film in that way. We said we hoped some North Koreans could see the film this way, but that we hoped they wouldn’t be caught doing so.
Robert Cannan has worked in various roles on features, shorts and music videos, including as Nick Broomfield’s Associate Producer on the docu-drama GHOSTS, which screened at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, before directing the critically acclaimed feature documentary THREE MILES NORTH OF MOLKOM. The film won an audience award at the 2008 Göteborg Film Festival, was nominated for Best British Documentary at the 2008 British Independent Film Awards and was released in the U.S. by IFC Films/Sundance Selects. Cannan is now consulting on a fiction remake of THREE MILES NORTH OF MOLKOM, slated for 2016.
They were the Brangelina of ’70s South Korea—the romance between the debonair film director Shin Sang-ok and glamorous actress Choi Eun-hee took them to the heights of South Korean society. Fame took a toll on their love, but it also attracted unbelievable twists of fate. The two find themselves kidnapped by the North Korean regime, and they are forced to play along with a bizarre filmmaking project led by superfan cinephile Kim Jong-il. Enduring torture, imprisonment, and surveillance, their romance is rekindled, and they realize escape is only possible through filmmaking—but the smallest mistake in their plans could cost them their lives.
DIRECTORS: Robert Cannan, Ross Adam
PRODUCER: Natasha Dack Ojumu
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