The Lovers and the Despot

Cert PG, 100 mins, ★★★★

The extraordinary, true tale that unravels in The Lovers and the Despot, a documentary from Robert Cannan and Ross Adam, might at first be dismissed as too incredible even for a thriller.

It begins, conventionally enough, with a love story between the glamorous actress Choi Eun-hee and the raffish director Shin Sang-ok, stars of the South Korean film industry in the 1950s and 1960s.

Shin and Choi married and adopted two children: a girl and a boy. When Choi – the principal narrator, since Shin died in 2006 – recalls that era, she remembers the reverential bustle around her celebrity, how service miraculously improved when she stepped on a plane.

Then the dream darkened: Shin and Choi split over his infidelity, and angry creditors massed as Shin’s film business ran into trouble. In 1978 Choi travelled to Hong Kong for work, but was drugged and abducted by a female “shopping guide” who was in fact a North Korean agent. When Choi finally came round after a hazy boat trip, she recalls, she was taken to meet someone: “A man held out his hand. ‘Thanks for coming,’ he said, ‘I am Kim Jong-il.’ ”

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