Jazz, film, and improvised culture.
NYAFF ’16: Dongju
only published 116 poems, give or take a few strays that turned up since the
definitive publication of his first and only book, but they were enough. Much
of his poetry was strictly apolitical, but the Imperial Japanese still read
plenty into them, especially since they were written in Korean at a time when
the language was forbidden. That in itself established a pattern of defiance. Yun
Dong-jo’s short, tragic life gets the serious bio-pic treatment in Lee Joon-ik’s
Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet (trailer here), which screens
during the 2016 New York Asian Film Festival.
was born and raised in Jilin, China, which was then a considerable hub of the
Korean Diaspora. Initially, Yun and his cousin Song Mong-gyu studied in Korea,
but transferred to more prestigious Japanese universities when the Imperial
language regulations became even more restrictive. They would be forced to
speak Japanese in any event. However, Song clearly has ulterior motives.
his roles are always shadowy, it is obvious Song is deeply involved with the
Korean national resistance movement. His exact ideology is also rather slippery.
As a teen in Manchuria, he parrots Communist propaganda, but he quickly becomes
disillusioned with their brutal tactics. Regardless, it is safe to say he is
pro-Korea and anti-Imperial Japan.
same could be said of Yun, but screenwriter Shin Youn-shick is even coyer about
spelling out his revolutionary activities, if any. Yun certainly contributed to
and helped edit nationalist publications with Song, but Lee and Shin often
suggest his cousin shielded him from direct action. Throughout the film, they
conduct a running debate as to which is more important in the long run: Song’s
guerilla missions or Yun’s hope-sustaining words.
Yong-jin’s black-and-white cinematography is gorgeous, but Lee’s approach is respectful
to a fault and problematically bloodless. The flashback structure also gives
the film the feeling of a secular passion play. To their credit, they largely
avoid ideological axe-grinding and even suggest the Catholic Church helped
protect Korean communities where they had a presence.
is a good thing Yun had a way with verse, because Kang Ha-neul’s excessively
reserved performance is rather charmless. Frankly, it is much more interesting
to watch Park Jung-min’s passionate and conflicted portrayal of Song. He
genuinely dominates the film, but Choi Hee-seo and Shin Yoon-joo do their
valiant best playing the underdeveloped roles of Yun’s fellow student-literary
boosters with more sensitivity than they probably deserve.
Be that as it may, Dongju is a generally well-meaning film that artfully incorporates
many of Yun’s poems. It also makes a point of establishing the existence of
dissenting Japanese citizens sympathetic to the Korean national cause, such as
Choi’s Kumi. It is very much a screen biography of a literary figure, with all
the strengths and weaknesses that genre usually entails. Primarily recommended
for those who already know and respect Yun’s work, Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet screens this Tuesday (6/28) at the
Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.
Labels: Korean Cinema, NYAFF '16