South Korean film “The Poet and the Boy” is a familiar story to the bone. Here is an artist struggling with his lack of inspiration, but then there comes an unexpected possibility of romance, and he is both confused and inspired by that. While the movie is initially interesting to some degrees, it is considerably hampered by the contrived melodrama during the last act, and it is disappointing on the whole despite a number of good elements to enjoy.
Its hero is a poet named Hyeon Taek-gi (Yang Ik-joon), and the early scenes of the movie show us his mundane daily life in a seaside town in Jeju Island. While he drew some attention during his early career years, he is not exactly successful these days, and there is an amusing moment when he presents his latest poem to a group of his colleagues during their routine meeting. Almost everyone praises the poem first, but then one of them points out its flaws, and, to his embarrassment, the overall opinion is soon changed as others agree to that acerbic criticism.
Although he earns some money through teaching poetry at a local elementary school, he mostly depends on his wife, who virtually takes care of everything in their house while he concentrates on his work. Because they have lived alone together for years, his wife wants to have a baby, so she actively pursues her goal whenever she is with him at night, but Taek-gi is not particularly willing to give her what she wants. When she later takes him to a local clinic for checking his fertility, they come to learn that his sperms are not exactly ideal for impregnating her, but that rather embarrassing fact of his does not stop her at all.
Meanwhile, a doughnut shop happens to be opened near their house, and Taek-gi comes to notice a handsome adolescent employee working in that shop during one evening. After tasting the doughnuts from that shop through his wife, he frequently visits the shop, and he cannot help but be more conscious of that boy in question. At one point, Taek-gi happens to peep on the boy having a sex with some girl in the bathroom in the shop, and he finds himself quite excited by that.
Not so surprisingly, this newfound passion of his makes him feel better in more than one way. He finds himself fueled by more inspiration than before, and the resulting poem is admired by his colleagues a lot more than his previous one. When his wife wants to try artificial insemination, he can provide more sperms as thinking about the boy, and his wife is happy for this physical improvement of his.
Is it just temporal infatuation? Has he been a homosexual or a bisexual from the beginning? The movie is rather vague on that matter, but we get a few small humorous moments as Taek-gi struggles with the sexual feeling he has never experienced before. When he confides to his close friend about that, his friend only shows casual discomfort, and his small gesture at the end of their scene drew a chuckle from me. When Taek-gi’s wife soon comes to learn of her husband’s sexual confusion, she is merely amused while not particularly angry about that, and she even throws at him a cheerful question on his sexuality.
But then things become more serious than before when Taek-gi approaches closer to the boy at one night. As getting to know about how unhappy the boy is at his poor family home, Taek-gi comes to care more about him, so he comes to spend more time with the boy, who does not seem to mind Taek-gi’s approach at all. When they happen to have a private conversation near an empty swimming pool, something seems to be developed between them, and the boy does not reject Taek-gi’s affectionate gesture toward him.
While Taak-gi wonders whether he can move forward to the next step, his relationship with his wife naturally becomes strained, and that is where the movie begins to stumble. Through several plot contrivances, it pushes its main characters into a melodramatic situation which feels jarring compared to the rest of the movie, and its narrative becomes choppy as jumping from one moment to another while not filling the gaps between them enough. Furthermore, the ending is a total cop-out, and I was disappointed with how the movie handles its main characters’ emotional matters so conveniently and superficially like that.
Anyway, the movie, which is the first feature film made by director/writer Kim Yang-hee, is not entirely without admirable things. I am impressed by how she conveys well the vivid sense of locations to us, and she also drew good performances from her main cast members. While Yang Ik-Joon, who looks quite different from his gritty, electrifying performance in his unforgettable film “Breathless” (2008), is believable as a nebbish ordinary hero, Jeon Hye-jin, who recently appeared in “A Taxi Driver” (2017), effectively complements Yang with her lively performance, and Jung Ga-ram acquits himself well although he is stuck with a relatively bland character.
During my viewing, I was reminded of Jim Jarmusch’s “Paterson” (2016), which is one of the best films about poetry in my opinion. Compared to that sublime film, “The Poet and the Boy” feels shallow in its similar attempt to juxtapose life with poetry, and I don’t think I will remember well several poems appearing in the film. Sure, they are at least better than those lousy poems I sometimes came across in public spaces, but the movie fails to generate enough emotional resonance from them, and I am only left with dissatisfaction.