A tragic story
The film tells the tragic story of Yun Dong-ju and his best friend Song Mong-kyu. It starts in the 50’s, during their university days, when they both write poetry, but Song is the one who is recognized first. This event would shape their relationship to a large degree, with Yun adopting a place in life, somewhere below his friend, who was the definite leader of the two. Later on, as Yun fails to publish his poems, they start a literary magazine, while Song becomes a political activist, chiefly against the Japanese Occupation. In 1942, when the Japanese pass a law forcing all lessons in Korea to be in the Japanese language, they move to Japan. They attend different universities, since Yun fails to pass the entrance exams for Tokyo University, and Song becomes one of the leaders of the Resistance. The film ends, and starts actually, with both of them imprisoned.
Elaborate direction and editing
Lee Joon-ik directs a film that moves in two axes. The first one is in the present, when Yun Dong-ju is interrogated by the Japanese, regarding his and Song Mong-kyu’s actions. The second axis unfolds in the past, as it describes the events that led to their arrest. In an elaborate practice, the two axes mirror each other, with the past one appearing according to the questions of the interrogation. Furthermore, Yun’s poems, most of which are autobiographical, are also narrated according to the corresponding event appearing on screen. The synchronisation of all the above is one of the film’s biggest traits and finds its apogee in a sequence during the end, where scenes of both Yun and Song alternate in magnificent fashion. Consequently, the editing is masterful, despite the difficulty the narration presented.
A harsh comment regarding the Japanese
The Japanese imperialists are painted with the darkest colors. They are presented as unreasonable, cruel, illogical beings that treated the Koreans and their culture as inferiors, and even resorted to using them as guinea pigs.
Kang Ha-neul as Yun Dong-ju and Park Jung-min as Song Mong-gyu give great performances in radically different roles. The former portrays wonderfully a somewhat timid individual who relies largely on his friend, despite his obvious talent. Furthermore, one of the film’s greatest moments comes in a monologue he presents, near the ending. The latter presents, with equal ability, a true force of nature, as he appears unwavering by any obstacle that comes his way. Their chemistry is also great, with Song being the definite leader in their relationship.
Fitting production values
Choi Yong-jin’s black-and-white cinematography is a thing of beauty, and fits perfectly the general aesthetics of the film. The different eras and settings are detailed and accurate, both in the appearance of the various individuals and the presentation of the different places, highlighting the work done in these departments.
“Dongju: Portrait of a Poet” is a great film in all aspects, one of the best movies of the year.
“Dongju: Portrait of a Poet” screened during the London Korean Film Festival