Dongju: The Portrait Of A Poet

Korea (2016) Dir. Lee Joon-Ik

Having kept quiet about the Japanese occupation of their country for over 70 years Korean filmmakers are no longer staying silent, having mined this dark period of their history as inspiration for a number of recent titles, including The Silenced, Spirits’ Homecoming and The Handmaiden.

The subject of this film from Lee Joon-Ik is a literary figure who may not be too well known outside of his native country poet Yun Dong-Ju. Unfortunately, despite the film’s title Lee concentrates more on the Japanese occupation than the man himself, delivering less a portrait and more a sketch.

But there is a sobering and important story being shared here justifying its educational value. Told predominantly through flashback, we open cold with a wan and weakened Yu Dong-Ju (Kang Ha-Neul) being interrogated by a relentless and intransigent Japanese police detective (Kim In-Woo). Dong-Ju is accused of being a part of a Korean uprising against the Japanese, his poetry providing sufficient evidence to corroborate this.

Jumping back a few years finds Dong-Ju as part of a small Korean community given immunity on religious grounds, but soon Korean schools teach the Japanese syllabus and in the Japanese language under the new regime. Dong-Ju and his cousin Song Mong-Gyu (Park Jung-Min), decide to put their literary aspirations to good use and create a magazine in response.

Mong-Gyu soon departs for China to learn from their rebels how to topple the Japanese but is appalled by their extreme actions. Deciding the best form of attack is from the inside, Dong-Ju and Mong-Gyu head to Japan to study there. The pair is separated when Dong-Ju fails to qualify for the same college and Mong-Gyu, but while his cousin is forming a rebel army, Dong-Ju is trying to get his poetry published.

It becomes quickly apparent that the plight of the would-be Korean insurgence is the principal story being told here with Dong-Ju’s name being the main hook, at least for Korean audiences. The response was very healthy at the box office and the film was well rewarded on the domestic awards circuit, but for International audiences the eponymous poet stands out more as a supporting character in his own tale.

Dong-Ju is presented to us as a highly principled but introverted young man who enjoys reading and writing poetry and would rather use words in a verse as a weapon, even as a conscientious objector. And when thrown into the thick of things once in Japan, Dong-Ju prefers to keep his head down rather than overtly cause trouble unlike Mong-Gyu, the sort of person who would pick a fight with an alligator if he were a hamster.

While Mong-Gyu strives to restart his underground magazine and eventually form a resistance group, going as far as accepting conscription to the Japanese army to get an inside look at how it works, Dong-Ju is more interested in meeting his poetry idol and with encouragement from fellow student Kumi (Choi Hee-Seo), getting published, which means secretly translating the poems into English then smuggled out to Britain.

It is hard to believe now but Lee’s film shows us a Japan as totalitarian as they come back in the 1940’s, based on a fear of being made lapdogs to the west thus trying to galvanise the whole of Asia to rise against the west. Quite how taking over their land and punishing anyone who disagrees with them will endear other countries to their cause, but tyranny was never a synonym for reason.

Echoing the struggles of the French resistance against the Nazis over in Europe, dissenters are treated like rubbish by the Japanese. As punishment, Dong-Ju, Mong-Gyu and other prisoners were injected daily with undisclosed solutions for experimentation purposes which saw their health decline rapidly but, for our two leads, their spirits were not broken.

This paints a horrific picture of the abuse suffered by the hand of the Japanese and their corrupt dogma but it tells us little about Dong-Ju himself. Because Mong-Gyu was the major driving force behind the dissidence, Dong-ju is a victim of circumstance, guilty by association if you will, and to compound matters further, his poetry is entirely innocent.

We are not told what inspired this love of verse in Dong-Ju, (he is already in his 20’s here), and where his ability to create lyrical and evocative works comes from. According to Lee’s depiction, Dong-Ju can look out of the window after a conversation or event, and the stanzas are already forming in his head, just needing pen and paper to complete the process.

Like many Dong-Ju’s story is a tragic one and it is not a spoiler to reveal that he died in Fukuoka Prison six months before Japan surrendered after Hiroshima to end World War II. Dong-Ju was just 27 years-old. Thirty-one of his poems were eventually published in 1948, showing his initial political leanings which later gave way to paranoid introspection, suffused with a steely pride in his nationality.

Tasked with portraying this revered figure, Kang Ha-Neul at first appears like a pretty boy in over his head but the interrogation scenes see Kang come to life in his powerful depiction of Dong-Ju’s torturous final months. However, it is Park Jung-Min as Mong-Gyu who steals the show, deftly dominating each scene as doggedly as his character stays true to his beliefs and his Korean identity, also ending on an emotionally chilling note.

Lee chose to shoot the film in washed out black and white, giving it an arthouse feel that is wholly suitable in delineating the misery of the Koreans and the austerity of the Japanese control. Similarly, by removing colour, neither nation is deemed superior or inferior to the other, the monochrome presentation being a subtle leveller between the two.

Dongju: The Portrait Of A Poet may not be the most revealing biopic due to the lack of depth and exploration of its titular subject, but the surrounding story from this unpleasant period of Korean history demands to be shared.