Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet (2016) [New York Asian Film Festival 2016]

dongjuIn 1940s Korea, Japanese colonialists were banning Korea culture and the use of the Korean language in an effort to unify their territories and become a stronger world power.  In this struggle, a young man named Yun Dongju starts writing poems in Korean while attempting to survive the assimilation of his people, reluctantly becoming a fighter in a battle to preserve Korea’s identity.

This historical film was written by Yeon-Shick Shin and directed by a new master of the genre, Joon-ik Lee.  They create here a subtle and fairly easy to understand representation of what is considered a hard period in Korea through the eyes of a talented poet.  The film takes its time showing the young life of Dongju as well as the societal shift that the Japanese colonizing brought.  The poems read on black and white images of Korea are personal and real, they create a center for the story, an emotional anchor.  These were carefully chosen amongst Dongju’s work to best suit the film and they bring a solemnity to the proceedings.

The casting for this film is pivotal as so much rests on how the lead of Dongju is interpreted.  Kang Ha-Neul takes this character and develops him into a fully fleshed out human being, giving a voice for his soft yet emotional poems.  He shows a wide range of emotions with subtle variations, giving life to this man whose story is mainly untold, especially to Western audiences.  Supporting this performance are Jeong-min Park as Dongju’s cousin Song Monggyu who is someone who likes to stir the pot and possibly cause trouble for himself and those around him.

His performance is less subdued and a bit more in your face as time passes and the character requires the actor to be bolder.  Also supporting Kang Ha-Neul is Moon Choi as Kumi, the girl who believes in him and does all she can to get him published,  Her performance is also held back but stands out amongst the mostly male cast, showing a calm and strong female presence in a time when women were still encouraged to take a backseat to men’s dealings.

Shot in black and white, the look of the film is very serious which fits with the story and its developments.  The way the Korean countryside is shot is absolutely beautiful, the images convey the seriousness of the situation the Koran people faced during that period.  The pairing of filmed sequences with the reading of the poems is perfect.  Unfortunately, a credit for cinematography could not be found online (in English or French) at the time this was written.

The black and white images and style in which the film is shot make sense for this film and its subject but they do make it feel slower and made it harder for this reviewer to concentrate on the story and the poems.  The style is hypnotic but can also be sleep inducing if reading a lot of subtitles on a calm series of sequences is not one’s passion.  The slowness here is deliberate to give the viewers time to absorb the emotions and pay attention to the poems.

Poet Yun Dongju led a tragic life, like most artists about whom movies are made, in the time period that was anything but easy.  His story is worth watching for the quality of the film and the emotionality of his poems.  Viewers will (should) also learn about a tumultuous time in Korea’s history, which can be considered a bonus.  It’s a bit long and slow, but absolutely worth looking for and watching.