Wishing not to have
so much as a speck of shame
toward heaven until the day I die,
I suffered, even when the wind stirred the leaves.
With my heart singing to the stars,
I shall love all things that are dying.
And I must walk the road
that has been given to me.
Tonight, again, the stars are
brushed by the wind.
– The foreword of Yoon Dong-ju’s poetry collection “The Heavens and the Wind and the Stars and Poetry” (1948)
Like some famous poets who died too early, Korean poet Yoon Dong-ju (1917-1945) was unfortunately not able to see his poems recognized and admired by many people of his country. After his premature death which happened just six months before the end of the World War II, the collections of his manuscripts were published as “The Heavens and the Wind and the Stars and Poetry” in 1948, and he has been revered as one of the notable Korean poets during the Japanese Occupation period since then.
Through its partially fictionalized drama revolving around the friendship between Yoon Dong-ju and his close friend Song Mong-gyoo, South Korean film “Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet” looks around the last 10 years of Yoon’s tragically short life. While his several poems are often quoted, the movie presents to us that gloomy oppressive era which pressured this young, sensitive poet and his friend as well as many other Koreans during that dark time, and we come to get some understanding of his quiet artistic struggle which was sublimated into his unadorned but beautiful poems to be remembered.
With the interrogation scenes between Yoon and a Japanese detective as its framing device, the story begins around 1935, when Yoon (Kang Ha-neul) and Song (Park Jeong-min) live with their families in Jilin, China. Because their parents are family members who moved together to China for getting out of their occupied country, Yoon and Song have naturally been close to each other since their childhood years, but they are different from each other in many ways. While aspiring to be a novelist, Song is an idealist eager to do anything for his country suffering under the Japanese oppression, but Yoon just wants to be a poet despite his father’s opposition.
After they graduate from a local middle school, Yoon and Song seem to part from each other as Song decides to leave their hometown for participating in the Korean Independence Movement, but their paths eventually converge several years later when they go to Korea and enroll in Yeonhui Technical School, which is Yonsei University in Seoul at present. While they passionately work together for their small literature magazine, Yoon meets Yeo-jin (Shin Yoon-ju), and she gladly introduces him to a famous poet he has admired.
Things look good for a while like that, but Yoon and others still cannot avoid the grim reality of their country as Japan becomes more determined to exterminate anything Korean than before. While Korean becomes a forbidden language, many people are forced to change their Korean names into Japanese ones, and Yoon feels conflicted as he is about to graduate. He wants to study literature more, but that means he has to make several compromises against his conscience.
In the end, he and Song come to change their names as demanded, and then they go to Japan because Japan seems to be a little more comfortable environment for their education. While Song goes to Kyoto, Yoon goes to Rikkyo University in Tokyo, and he is happy to study under a Japanese professor who instantly recognizes Yoon’s talent. The professor introduces Yoon to his stepdaughter Kumi (Choi Hui-seo), and she is also willing to help Yoon’s poet career.
However, as the World War II is being continued outside, Yoon finds himself in a more precarious circumstance. His professor kindly helps his transfer to Doshisha University in Kyoto, and Yoon is glad to meet Song again, but Song happens to be preparing for a secret plan with other Korean students who will be drafted into the Japanese Army sooner or later like Song and Yoon. Yoon does not particularly want to get involved with whatever his friend is planning behind his back, but it is apparent from the beginning that this will be bound to seal both of their fates.
Directed by Lee Jook-ik, “Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet” looks small and modest compared to his previous film “The Throne” (2015), but the result is more engaging in comparison. While its production design and costumes look rather plain, it did a competent job of establishing its period mood and background on the screen, and the black and white cinematography by Choi Yong-jin surely enhances that. The screenplay by Shin Yeon-shick, who previous wrote and directed “The Russian Novel” (2012), is intimate and thoughtful in its earnest handling of story and characters, and its two young heroes come to us as human characters who contrast and complement each other in interesting ways.
As the titular character of the film, Kang Ha-neul is likable in his tender, sensitive lead performance, and Park Jeong-min, who was one of three main characters in “Bleak Night” (2010), is equally good as the other half of the story. While Choi Hui-seo and Shin Yoon-ju are lovely as two women who briefly pass by Yoon’s life, Korean Japanese actor Kim In-woo is effectively loathsome, and he has his own moments as his character’s bullying façade gets crumbled inside later in the story.
On the whole, “Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet” is a humble but solid drama which also works as a sincere, respectful tribute to Yoon’s life and work. While its finale is inevitably melodramatic, the movie thankfully maintains its calm, restrained attitude, and the result is somber but poignant as we are reminded again of how short his life was. I can only guess what he could have done more if he had been more fortunate, but his poems have lived far longer than him at least.