“The Lovers and the Despot”: How North Korea kidnapped a filmmaker and his actress wife to bolster its own propaganda machine


Name: The Lovers and the Despot
Director, writer:  Ross Adam and Robert Cannan
Released:  2016
Format:  1.85:1, much archival footage
When and how viewed:  Landmark E St, 2016/9/26. afternoon, small audience
Length 98
Rating PG-13
Companies: Magnolia
Link: link

First, the threat of North Korea is dead serious.  The DPRK does seem to have built a nuclear weapon that can be put on a missile.  It probably could nuke South Korea now, and maybe Japan.  In a few years, it might reach the Pacific Northwest of Canada and the US.  Great circle maps have the longest missiles capable of reaching northern Michigan. Hopefully NORAD (“War Games”) would be ready.

And Km Song-Un has made plenty of blustery threats. At worst, he could be capable of making the moral pronouncements of the doomsday prepper crowd relevant. An attack against “just” to South could have enormous ramifications for the markets and could happen at any time.

In fact, during the 1990s, when I wrote my first “Do Ask Do Tell” book, it seemed that Korea was the most serious military issue we had.  I wasn’t aware of the gravity of asymmetric terrorism yet,

So, yes, “The Lovers and the Despot”, by Ross Adam and Robert Cannan, is “another” documentary about the DPRK, a dicey thing ever since the country’s brazen bullying of Sony Pictures over “The Interview” at the end of 2014.

And the movie sets up an intriguing “story”, even if it is the politics that seems to matter now.  In early 1978 – while I was living my last year in NYC and a most interesting time for me personally – Hong Kong was still under British rule (until 1997) and did not have the glitz of today (with the Mira Hotel where Snowden stayed).   Filmmaker Shin and actress Choi have divorced, and during a stay in Hong Kong, Choi is lured to a “party” and kidnapped and taken to the DPTK.  Shin follows to Hong Kong and gets kidnapped himself, and both wind up imprisoned in North Korea   The kidnapping of Shin is not covered in as much detail.


Soon they learn that Kim Song Il (who has taken over from his father) wants the filmmakers to buff up the film industry of North Korea, which Shin would do.  Under supervision, the couple, reunited, would be allowed to travel.

The film then moves to 1986, where, with a caper-like sequence worthy of Hitchcock, the couple, visiting Vienna, escapes to the US embassy and asks for asylum, which the Reagan administration quickly grants.

As for North Korea’s propaganda film industry, I recall seeing a horrible film “Flower Girl” at the Washington Square Methodist Church in New York City in the fall of 1974, shortly after moving into the City.  A story about a girl getting medications for her mother, it was sing-song-y and boring, preachy, and endless.


Adam’s film mentions North Korea’s attempt to make a successor to “Titanic” long after Shin’s escape.  But DPRK’s films have never gotten distribution outside the country

Adam also shows some of the cruelty of the regime (as have many other films).  People are forced to weep in public at the passing of both leaders, in a parody of what I call “upward affiliation” (but then, again, Donald Trump provides another such parody).

But the most shocking idea is the kidnappings in a foreign, western-controlled country.  We’ve heard about China kidnapping booksellers and writers today in Hong Kong and even Thailand.  The couple in the film is from South Korea.  But could something like that happen to am “ordinary” American journalist or even blogger?  The conventional wisdom, is don’t visit authoritarian countries as a tourist unless you really know what you’re doing (the topic came up at a travel expo recently, writeup ).  But could you really be “taken” anyway?

Wikipedia attribution link for picture of Pyongyang by John Pavelka under CCSA 2.0

Second picture:  about 15 homeless people camped out at McPherson Square Metro in downtown DC last night.

(Posted: Tuesday, September 27, 2016 at 11 AM EDT)


“De Palma”: famous director of “New Wave” suspense runs through his own narrative in his films



Name: De Palma
Director, writer:  Noah Baumbach, Jake Paltrow
Released:  2016/6/17
Format:  standard
When and how viewed: Landmark E Street, 2016/6/20, 7 PM, light audience
Length 104
Rating PG-13?
Companies:  A24  (New York Film Festival)
Link: site

De Palma: One of America’s Greatest Storytellers”, directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, consists of the 75-year old director sitting an talking about his life and his movies, with many clips.  There are no interview questions, just an auto-narrative. He also says filmmakers need to prove themselves in their 30s, 40s and 50s.

He says at the end that his entire life narrative is out there for everyone to see, including any mistakes.  That is how it is for me!  He says his entire concept for film comes from visual imagery.

He grew up in an upper income family in northern New Jersey and then near Philadelphia, and went to Columbia intending math and science, in a day people needed draft deferments.  But he describes how he got into short film, and then into the business for real.

For most of the documentary he runs through his films, and many are interesting.

I remember seeing “Greetings” (1968), rated X, in Newport News VA when I was stationed at Fort Eustis, VA, between rounds of a chess tournament.  De Palma explains how he got out of the draft, including falsely claiming homosexual tendencies.

Obsession” (1976) plays on the doppelganger idea.

He moves on to “Carrie” (1976), based on Stephen King’s famous novel about a bullied girl who gets revenge through telekinetic powers at a senior prom, and he explains how he did the effects.  None of the remakes are as good.

Dressed to Kill” (1980) is one of his most Hitchcock-inspired films.  I remember the elevator slasher scene with a notorious transvestite who then goes after a witness.  I don’t recall that “she” was genuinely transgender.  I saw the film in Dallas.  I remember the “museum” (like in “Vertigo”) and the teen and the brownstone psychiatrist.  This film is one of my favorites.

Blow Out” (1981) is another favorite, where a technician records an accident and discovers on his own that it is murder.

Body Double” (1984) is another mystery about person duplication.

Scarface” (1983) was intended to show the Miami drug underworld and wound up being filmed in LA because of objections from the Cuban and Latino communities, and is one of the most graphic crime films ever made, practically NC-17.

Wise Guys” (1986) is a mob comedy, no connection to the Christian youth play that I have seen stage-produced and as far as I know still awaits being made into a film (maybe by Sony Affirm, perhaps?)

The Untouchables” (1987) is the famous mob drama partly written by Elliot Ness.

Casualties of War” (1989) is inspired by Vietnam, and tells the story of a soldier in a unit that has kidnapped a Vietnamese girl.  Note the word “victims” isn’t in the title.  This film made an “anti-war” statement as I remember.

Bonfire of the Vanities” (1990) shows life on Wall Street, a controversial adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s novel.

Carlito’s Way” (1998) is a famous crime drama with Sean Penn and Al Pacino and a famous scene in Grand Central with a baby carriage.

Mission to Mars” (2000) was directed for Disney, provides a mysterious artificial mountain on Mars with female aliens, who claim to be the mothers of all of us.

Redacted” (2007) brings back the topic of war crimes by American soldiers, this time in Iraq.

(Published: Monday, June 20, 2016 at 11:30 PM EDT)