We watched Dong Ju: Portrait of a Poet at the London Korean Film Festival 2016.
Summary: Gando Province, late 1930s. Dong-Ju and Myong-Ju are two cousins who both live in the same village. They are both interested in writing poetry. Myong-Ju wins a prize for one of his poems which is published in a magazine. It sets up a rivalry between them; Dong-ju wants to write poetry but Myong-Ju believes essays have more power to influence people. Dong-ju persuades his reluctant father to allow him to study Literature and Myong-Ju majors in Science. They continue their interest in poetry and start publishing poems, including a contribution from female student Yeo-jin. She introduces Dong-ju to the Korean poet Jeong-seon, who encourages Dong-ju to write for a living.
The Japanese occupation restricts the teaching of foreign literature and Korean students are forced to change their names. Dongju decides to study in Japan at Kyoto. Meanwhile, his cousin forms a group of students in an uprising against the Japanese occupation. They are both imprisoned in Fukuoka after the Japanese government charges them with treason.
Film-makers can have a difficult time recreating the past. Although it is possible to create historical periods through locations and costume, it is not possible to find actors who can easily recreate the mannerisms of another time. One look at the clothes in the film shows us how different Korea was only 80 years ago. Judging from the film, most people lived in small communities. Most people worked on farms and the careers most aspired to were in medicine and teaching. Korea has, throughout its history, always been a place where education has been given the utmost importance, and in the film much of the scenes take place within classrooms.
Yun Dong-yu was only able to publish one book of poetry during his lifetime; after being imprisoned and experimented on he died at the age of 27. Such a short life is easy to show in under 2-hours but the film doesn’t quite manage to explain the inspiration for his poetry or why he was prepared to sacrifice himself for his cousin’s political beliefs.
Poetry is not a natural subject for film, unlike a visual art form such as painting. Here, it’s worth comparing the film with a truly great film about a Korean historical figure – Painted Fire (2002). The film’s black and white, monochrome cinematography is a bold move, but it risks painting everything in a dull tone. We are also denied the chance to see the wonderful colours of the traditional hanbok worn by Yeo-jin; or the sakura of Kyoto.
The performances by handsome actors who are probably too good looking for the poets (have a look at the actual photos at the end) are simply not deep enough to convey the necessary emotion of the subject matter. Ka Neul-hang is especially badly cast as Dong-ju.
Away from the film’s focus on the conflict between Japan and Korea, the other battle of the film is the clash between the political ideology of Mong-yoo and the romantic idealism of Dong-ju who believes in the power of poetry to convey ideas. The film emphasizes their relationship as the most important one in their lives and there is no sign that the poet had any romantic life to speak of. He seems to have lived a chaste life based on what we see here. Student life must have been very serious in those days but why the lack of interest in women? The film shies away from female characters, with Kumi (Choi Hui-seo) and Yeo-jin (Sin Yun-ju) being given very limited screen time. This film is very pretty to look at but not much to get excited about. We have watched many films about the Japanese occupation of Korea but unfortunately this was one of the less exciting examples.
Featured image source: Metro Times, 24.04.2017, www.metrotimes.com