Korean Film Festival 2016 Review: Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet (South Korea, 2016)

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Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet is yet another filmic attempt at chronicling the lives of the literary. The film revolves around the young Korean poet Yun Dong-Ju (played by Kang Ha-Neul) and his coming of age; both as a poet, and as a revolutionary figure in the Korean Independence Movement resisting the Japanese occupation of Korea during World War II.

Though Dongju is the titular character of this film, his story is very much intertwined with that of his cousin and childhood friend, Song Mong-Gyu (played by Park Jung-Min). Mong-Gyu is the flyaway rebel who utilises his intellectual prowess to further the revolutionary cause of Korean independence, almost always at the expense of leaving his cousin Dongju behind.

Park Jung-Min never fully realises the character of Mong-Gyu, who to the end of the film remains a confusing and unlikeable enigma. He switches allegiances to political parties to further his own causes, derides Dongju’s poetry yet encourages him to publish it, and leaves him behind but relies heavily on him in other circumstances. The inability of Park to deliver on such a character of complexity is not his fault alone; Lee Joon-Ik’s script fails Mong-Gyu’s character. In delegating his role to a supporting character, not enough of this film was devoted to the development of Mong-Gyu as a full bodied character, who, if this were a different film, be a leading character in his own right.

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Kang Ha-Neul is equally unconvincing as Yun Dong-ju, portraying him as a hapless sod, who at his most concrete, was emotionally wooden. This was well evident in his conversations with his maybe-perhaps love interest Kumi (played by Moon Kye-Choi), where he averted her gaze at every turn. While his character has his moments of courage, (for example, when he stood up to Mong-Gyu’s disparaging of poetry) too often it gave way to a portrait of a man with a watery conviction.

The lacklustre plot of Dongju did little to give Ha-Neul much to work with – instead, the film severely lacked the sense of immediacy needed to give it any sort of momentum. The film focused squarely on the imminent threat of Japanese occupation, which merely crystallised for a large part of the film in symbolic changes, such as the forcing of Dongju and Mong-gyu to move to Japan to avoid the Japanese administration of their Korean colleges, and to change their names. While it can be appreciated that these changes must have had an immense destabilising effect on Koreans at the time, Lee Joon-Ik did not do enough to amplify this effect for the audience, failing to take into account that as a visual medium, what you see in film is what you get – and what we saw was frankly trivial. The effect of this immobile plot was a movie that moved barely enough to be an engaging film, to the extent that this reviewer found herself checking her watch only an hour in. While the last ten minutes of the film finally resulted in the unsheathing of claws from the Japanese authorities, it was a case of too little, too late for the film, which before this point, was dead on its feet.

Dongju: The Portrait of the Poet attempted to convey the acclaimed Korean poet Dongju’s life. Nonetheless, the film fails to emulate the way that Dongju’s poetics continue to maintain its pulse through the consciousness of Korean history.

Review Score: TWO STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet is part of the Korean Film Festival in Australia (KOFFIA) and will be showing in Adelaide on the 18th September and Perth on the 25th September.

For more information and ticketing check out koffia.com.au