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Laramie Movie Scope:
The Lovers and the Despot

The movie-loving dictator and his captive talent

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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January 17, 2017 -- This is a true story that is stranger than fiction, a story of a movie star, a movie director, spies, secret agents, kidnappings, a dictator who loves movies, and captive talents making movies for a repressive regime.

The story begins with romance, marriage, children, success in the movie business, followed by adultery and bankruptcy, that's before we get to the crazy stuff. The lovers are Choi Eun-hee, one of the biggest stars in the South Korean film industry in the 1950s and 1960s. She married the most successful film director in South Korea, Shin Sang-ok.

According to Shin's brother, interviewed in the film, Shin was a great director, but a bad businessman. Despite his success, Shin was constantly besieged by creditors, according to his son, who also appears in the film, along with Shin and Choi's daughter.

After Shin's adultery and divorce, Choi ended up in Hong Kong looking for work in films there. She was kidnapped by North Korean secret agents and taken to North Korea by boat in 1978. It turns out that Kim Jong-il, son of the dictator Kim Il-sung, was a big fan of South Korean movies. He ordered Choi kidnapped. The idea was for her to help with North Korea's propaganda efforts. Kim was a fan of Choi and treated her well, but there were veiled threats if she did not do as she was told.

Later that same year, Kim had Shin kidnapped from Hong Kong, where he had gone to look for his ex-wife. Many in South Korean still believe Shin went to North Korea willingly and was not kidnapped, but a recording of Kim himself, heard in the film, seems to indicate otherwise. Shin tried two escapes using almost comical plans cobbled together from movie plots. He was caught and put into solitary confinement for years.

Eventually, Shin and Choi were reunited in 1983 and they made a large number of movies together in North Korea for Kim Jong-il. According to Choi, Kim allowed them to make the movies they wanted to. Shin wrote the scripts, directed the films and often operated the cameras, while Choi acted as star and assistant director. They worked long hours. Choi said that while Shin didn't like being in North Korea, he did say it was the first time in his life he did not have to worry about money.

The documentary includes a brief clip of “Pulgasari,” a monster film similar to Godzilla, reportedly the best-known of the North Korean films made by Shin and Choi. Choi received the best actress award at the 1985 Moscow International Film Festival for her performance in the North Korean film “Sogum.” According to the documentary, Shin's films from this period were seldom seen outside of North Korea.

Eventually, Shin and Choi managed to escape from their North Korean guards. That was the beginning of a whole new Odyssey by way of political asylum in America, a brief stint directing films in Hollywood for Shin, eventually, the pair ended up back in South Korea. This is a story stranger than fiction.

The film is composed of a number of commercial film clips, some re-enactments of actual events, and a large number of interviews with family members, film industry insiders and government officials with knowledge of the events depicted in the film. This film is probably best seen, by American audiences at least, on a video disk with subtitles. A number of people interviewed in the film speak English, but with strong foreign accents (including some native English speakers) making it somewhat difficult to follow the story. This film rates a B.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2017 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)