J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

NYAFF ’16: Dongju

He 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.

Yun 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.

Although 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.

The 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.

Choi 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.

It 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.

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