Dongju: The Portrait Of A Poet (2016) – Review

Dongju, a political and human drama showcasing the power of words and thought....Read More

downloadDONGJU: THE PORTRAIT OF A POET (동주) -2016

  • Directed by: Lee Joon-ik (이준익)
  • Starring: Kang Ha-neul (강하늘), Park Jung-min (박정민), Kim In-woo (김인우), Kim Jung-suk (김정석), Choi Hee-seo (최희서), Shin Yoon-joo (신윤주), Sung Hong-il (성홍일), Min Jin-woong (민진웅)
  • The Film: Dongju is the true story of a Korean poet whose life and words were shaped during the dark years of Japanese imperialism. The title and story is based on Yun Dong-ju, a university student who was imprisoned by the Japanese government on charges of aiding and being part of the Korean independence movement.



Director Lee Joon-ik follows up his highly successful Joseon period piece, THE THRONE, with another well received historical drama also based on a true story. DONGJU is set during the Japanese colonial rule of Korea and centers on two best friends, Yun Dong-ju (Kang Ha-neul) and Song Mong-gyu (Park Jung-min).

Although the film centers mainly on the young poet Dong-ju, it could very well have been titled “Dong-ju and Mong-gyu” as it really is about both of them and their friendship equally. The two boys are best friends from elementary school and excel academically, both with passion for writing which leads them to start their own magazine during their high school days. Dong-ju loves to write poetry and Mong-gyu writes more literary essays. However, Dong-ju’s artistry for words seems to be overshadowed by the more accepted literary format of his friend. It is Mong-gyu who wins the excellence in writing award and who gets praise from his family for his talents, not Dong-ju. Nevertheless, Dong-ju writes his poetry and studies hard to keep up with his friendly rival. He even struggles for acceptance from his stern father who wishes Dong-ju abandon his writing and become a doctor.

The two friends develop very different mindsets during their high school days that will define their approach to managing the difficult situation they find themselves in as young adults during the Japanese occupation of their country. On one hand, we have Dong-ju who becomes more of the quiet conscientious objector type. He has of course his beautiful poetry which we often see him write and hear in voice-over; but we also get to see him quietly ripping up his application for changing his Korean name into a Japanese one. Also, in another scene he is publicly reprimanded after standing tall and admitting to skipping some kind of military class while attending university in Tokyo.

Mong-gyu represents the other side of the coin and develops into a vocal dissident who looks to act upon his convictions, often violently. POSSIBLE SPOILER: He goes overseas to China to take part in some political incident and gets himself placed on a watch list. Moreover, when the two boys decide to study abroad in Japan, Mong-gyu has ulterior motives, namely to infiltrate the military and and to put up some kind of resistance as he and other Koreans see the Japanese military effort on the losing side of the war. ———-END SPOILER———-

The story is told largely through flashbacks set against an overly theatrical interrogation set within a prison facility of sorts, between Dong-ju and a Japanese military officer played by the Japanese Korean actor Kim In-woo (My Way, Assassination). The interrogation takes place right near the end of the war in 1945 and the flashbacks begin ten years earlier during the last year of the boys’ high school days.

In the interrogation, Dong-ju is being questioned about his relationship with his friend Mong-gyu and the possible crimes they may be guilty of. In terms of developing the narrative of the film, there is not a lot of tension created between the cutting back and forth of the flashbacks and the interrogation. It seems to only be a device to get us feeling sympathy for Dong-ju and the situation he is in, as he is mercilessly berated by the detective. To top things off, he and other inmates are being given injections of unknown substances (most likely diseases and other drugs for experimentation) at the prison that severely affect their physical mental states. This is largely based on some documented and notorious war crimes carried out by the Japanese Imperial Army during these years.

As a non Korean, it is very hard to imagine the life of the average Korean person during the era of Japanese colonial rule. Even more so imagine the life of an artist during this time whose talent lies in their writing. The political and social significance that would come with this form of expression during those times makes for a rather compelling human story. This film will give those unfamiliar with the history a small glimpse of what that experience might have been like and remains very interesting on that point alone.

There have been a rather large number of Korean films in the last few years that play to the Korean identity, highlighting the strength and courage the people have developed and used to overcome the various hardships faced in the last hundred years or so. It is quite different from the muscle flexing of American cinema. One can not help but wonder if it has something to do with current geopolitical tensions or not. With that, there is a lingering feeling of “don’t forget what Japan did to us” throughout Dongju which may be hard for foreign audiences to relate to.

As a political and human drama, Dongju works quite well. The leads give moving performances as well as a few of the supporting cast, namely the actors playing the boys’ fathers. Oddly though, the female characters in this film are incredibly one dimensional. Shin Yoon-joo and Choi Hee-seo (who gets a little more leeway due to her dialogue being in Japanese) both deliver their lines in a very robotic, almost childlike way. The other distracting bit was with the the inconsistencies of the black and white picture. Night scenes in particular looked rather awful and were filled with a ton of digital noise. All in all, a film about a poet and poetry is a rare thing to come by, and to feel the beauty of Yun Dong-ju’s words in contrast with the harsh world he experienced makes for a moving and worthwhile film.



One Comment

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  • Tom Colosimo
    28 March 2016 at 5:38 am - Reply

    Will monitor the Magic Lantern’s schedule in hopes of seeing this. Great review, thanks!

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