Dong Ju: Portrait of a Port review: A look back at the life of one of Korea’s most important poets.
Dong Ju: Portrait of a Poet review, Luke Ryan Baldock at the London Korean Film Festival.
Based on the true story of Korean poet Yun Dong Ju, director Lee Joon Ik transports us back to WWII, a time when Korea was under Japanese rule. It’s a difficult subject to address in this day and age, as worldwide there is tension and division that seems to be growing. Going back into the past can sometimes bring up feelings from the past which can have a negative effect on progress made. Thankfully Lee Joon Ik leaves aside his more bombastic period drama flare for something a little more personal and thoughtful, aided in part by black and white photography and a script by Shin Yeon Shick, mostly known for writing and directing his own, more arthouse suited features.
Starting in 1940s Japan, we find a captive Dong Ju (Kang Ha Neul) interrogated by a Japanese detective (Kim In Woo). The detective is more interested in Dong Ju’s childhood friend and revolutionary Mong Gyu (Park Jung Min), but also finds suspicious messages in the words of Dong Ju’s poetry. Dong Ju recounts his and Mong Gyu’s story as they travel from Korea to Japan to study and soon get caught up in the revolution against Japan’s occupation.
Dong Ju: The Portrait of a Poet is wonderfully subdued in its delivery, while still covering a lot of ground. Much like a poem itself, the film is soft and calm, while the messages it gives can be hard and direct. Seeing things through the eyes of Dong Ju allows Kang to give an excellent performance of naivety and confusion, accentuated in all his interactions, whether it be with peers, the opposite sex, or hard political statements. Meanwhile, Park gives a more powerful and dominating performance as Mong Gyu, a writer who is more of a man of action.
It’s almost this juxtaposition of friends that makes the film wobble at times, although it never completely derails. Mong Gyu is the more interesting character, and certainly more charismatic on screen. It’s poetic, but makes for a film that is very heavy going and drags in places as Dong Ju’s view of events is more of an outsider looking in. It isn’t until the latter part of the film, where Dong Ju’s world meets that of Mong Gyu’s that he, and we, get a real sense of atrocities and pain.
Thankfully, the calm subtleties also mean that the film avoids melodrama, being too biased, and also never makes light of the situation for entertainment value. But there are plenty of films out there that successfully combine all aspects of historical tragedy and cinematic storytelling without crawling slowly through an important moment in history. Perhaps the passiveness of the narrative better reflects the spirit of the downtrodden, but if so, Mong Gyu would have been a better character to lead, as a man of action. Especially with the gravitas that Park Jung Min brings to the role.
Dong Ju: Portrait of a Poet review by Luke Ryan Baldock. The film screened as part of the London Korean Film Festival 2016.
It will screen again on Tue 22nd Nov at Broadway Cinema, Nottingham. And on Thu 24th Nov at Glasgow Film Theatre.