Dong-ju: The Portrait of a Poet (동주, Lee Joon-ik, 2016)

2016-03-12-1457751627-4889573Review of Dong-ju: The Portrait of a Poet (동주, Dong-ju) first published by UK Anime Network.


Lee Joon-ik’s previous film, The Throne, was a big budget period affair examining the well known story of tragic prince Sado who was, in a sense, murdered by his own nation as personified by his  father, the king, for failing to bow to a tyrannous regime. Lee’s followup, Dong-ju: The Portrait of a Poet, charts a similarly melancholy path in its exploration of the life and times of its titular wordsmith, unhappily born into an age of anti-intellectual fervour with only the desire to write verses. Yet another of the recent films to address the Korea’s colonial history, Dong-ju, like its hero, may be the most contemplative as it raises a number of questions not only about the nature of resistance but also of its intrinsic values.

Growing up in a Korean religious settlement in Manchuria, Dong-ju (Kang Ha-neul) and his cousin Mong-gyu (Park Jung-min) have been largely cushioned from the effects of the Japanese occupation, but are aware it’s only a matter of time before their village loses its special status and is swallowed by the powers at be. Both boys have literary aspirations with the more bombastic Mong-gyu opting for prose and the dreamier Dong-ju committed to the far less well received world of poetry. Firm friends as they are, literary rivalry aside, each is bound for a different course as Mong-gyu becomes increasingly involved with the independence movement whereas Dong-ju’s rebellion remains largely on the page.

After travelling to Japan as students, both Dong-ju and Mong-gyu are arrested for insurrection and incarcerated in the notorious Fukuoka prison where they are used as human subjects for experimentation. Regularly dosed with mysterious injections which blister the skin and weaken the constitution, neither lives long enough to see the return of their nation’s sovereignty just a few weeks later with Japan’s defeat at the end of the war.

Beginning with Dong-ju’s prison interrogation, the film is largely told through flashback as it follows the course of Dong-ju’s life from his adolescence in the village to domestic university and finally to Japan where he faces constant threat as an alien Korean in the land of the oppressor. Both he and Mong-gyu are committed to the idea that conscientious literature can change the world, even founding a student magazine dedicated to progressive texts. Mong-gyu, however, does not place the same faith in the art of poetry as does his friend, and eventually decides to head to China to join the left-wing arm of the Resistance movement in exile, only to become disillusioned with their extreme tactics.

Despite his loss of faith in Communist dogma, Mong-gyu remains committed to the idea of direct action and the eventual ushering in of the egalitarian revolution preceded by the expulsion of the Japanese. Far from opposing the draft of Korean students into the Japanese army, Mong-gyu plans to harness it to fill the army with capable, trained fifth columnists who will use the skills they learn in a foreign army to retake their homeland. After a brush with the ruling regime, Dong-ju tries to join the more active side of the resistance alongside his friend but is rebuffed. Mong-gyu knows his friend is not a born soldier and is much more valuable as a poet than on the front lines.

Dong-ju’s poetry is often not overtly political, anti-Japanese, or even anti-colonialist, but it is written in Korean – a daring act of political resistance in itself. During this era, Japanese was the dominant language, used in all official institutions and most schools (Dong-ju and Mong-gyu’s excluded because of its special religious status). One of the problems Dong-ju faces during his interrogation is that he delayed adopting a Japanese name much longer than was wise and subsequently continued to disseminate literature in Korean. When language is suppressed and nationhood denied to the extent that even names have been erased, what other means is there to reclaim an identity other than literature, and of literature what more powerful than poetry?

Dong-ju’s resistance to the brutalisation of of an oppressive regime is entirely internal. He writes in his native language about the things which matter, of his loneliness and youthful anxiety much of which is born of the uncertainty of his times. During his interrogation he is forced to sign a confession of his “crimes”, which he does, but with equal amounts of pride and shame as he wonders if his commitment to literature was time well spent when his comrades were dying in the streets. Was it responsible of him to commit himself to poetry rather than to medicine with all of its more immediately humanitarian benefits, or should he have thrown away the pen for the gun and joined the combatants in the armed struggle?

Mong-gyu, by contrast, feels only shame when he signs his papers which amount to a list of failed manifesto promises. Yes, he did plan all of these things but realised none of them, placing the lives of his friends in jeopardy as his did so. Perhaps he, like Dong-ju, should have agitated for social change through culture, rather than trying to fight an empire using only the empire’s cast offs.

There are no real answers to these questions, Korea regained its independence thanks to the collapse of the Japanese overseas empire rather than armed insurrection or the gradual enlightenment of the citizenry. Both men are left with a lingering sense of shame and impotence at having been unable to accomplish more in their cruelly shortened lives. Yet as for Dong-ju, there is rebellion enough in his poetry which bares all of his own soul as he suffered the torment of a poet forbidden from poetry, writing in a language proscribed by those that would seek to destroy the essence of his culture.

Filming in a crisp, washed out black and white, Lee imbues his world with a sense of melancholy and lost potential as two young men find themselves at the mercy of their times, fighting for their own independence as distinct from that of their nation but once again being denied. A necessarily sombre film unafraid to acknowledge the darkest edges of the colonial period, Dong-ju: The Portrait of a Poet is a celebration of the enduring power of the poetic form as exemplified by Dong-ju’s beautifully heartbreaking lines.


Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Black House (검은집, Shin Terra, 2007)

Black House (korea)Yusuke Kishi’s Black House source novel was previously adapted by Yoshimitsu Morita in its native Japan back in 1999, but eight years later the tale made its way to Korea by way of director Shin Terra who opts for a much more straightforward approach than Morita’s characteristically bizarre take. Sold as K-horror, the tone is closer to nasty thriller only giving way to classic slasher action in the final stretch. In eschewing Morita’s idiosyncratic tendency to insert himself into the material, Shin crafts a more mainstream aesthetic, but loses the various layers of social and psychological commentary that went with it.

Juno (Hwang Jung-min) is a mild mannered insurance clerk, new on the job and extremely naive. His first case involves a visit to a hospital with his boss to visit a persistent claimant whom they believe is deliberately scamming the system and possibly with the hospital’s help. In many way, Juno is an innocent, he believed in insurance as a safety net and a power for social good so he’s shocked that anyone would deliberately manipulate the rules in this way – particularly when he discovers some people will go so far as to deliberately maim themselves just to claim on their insurance policies.

Not long after he starts working at the company, Juno gets a strange phone call from a man asking if insurance policies pay out in case of suicide. It’s possible, Juno says – he’ll need to check the policy to make sure. Suddenly worried the person he’s talking to is in a dark place, he starts trying to dissuade him from the idea of taking his own life and unwisely gives a lot of first hand advice despite the highlighted section in his employee guide cautioning him never to reveal personal information to clients. Soon enough, a client has asked for him personally to go out to their remote house and chat about a policy, When he gets there he receives a nasty surprise as the man’s young son has apparently “hanged himself” in the back room. Appalled, Juno waits to greet the police but becomes convinced the man has deliberately killed the boy, who was his step-son, to get the payout on his life insurance.

Juno refuses the claim but Choong-bae, the claimant, won’t give up and starts coming to the office everyday to ask for his money. Choong-bae is a scary looking guy and frightens most of the other staff with his vacant staring. He also has an insurance policy on his wife leading Juno to fear that she is next but his decision to try and alert her to her husband’s plans will prove a mistaken one, drawing him into the web of a dangerous and psychopathic serial killer.

Shin’s adaptation is most likely closer to the original novel but he is far less interested in the psychological or social implications than Morita was. There is no explanation offered for the actions of the killer though the childhood sequences with their reliance on dreams and hearsay remain intact, only with lesser impact. The question of insurance fraud and scamsters, people so desperate for money that they will literally sacrifice an arm or a leg, only exists as background and isn’t presented as a societal problem so much as just something that happens because there are some shameless people out there who would rather play the system than do an honest days work. Juno has also been given his own tragic backstory which tries to play him off as a mirror of the killer though somehow this never quite works and Juno’s own flashbacks are overplayed.

Beginning as a slow burn thriller where Juno plays the nervous, softhearted neophyte as yet uninured to the murkiness of the insurance world, Black House (검은집, Geomeun Jip) takes a huge detour during the final third which sends it into slasher territory when Juno decides to travel to the titular Black House, alone, during the middle of the night, because the police won’t listen to him and there are people in danger. When he gets there he finds a veritable house of horrors with body parts and nooses hanging from the ceiling, blood and carnage everywhere. Then it’s a straightforward fight to the death as Juno faces off against the psychopathic terror despite his nervous disposition culminating in some unexpectedly gory business with a key.

Like most slasher movies, Black House has several endings and finishes on a note of uncertainty but it never quite manages to make its sudden descent into violence work in its favour. Lacking the depth of Morita’s adaptation, Shin’s Black House may have stronger genre influences but with nothing to back them up all that remains at the end is a darker than usual serial killer tale with mild slasher tendencies. A decent enough mainstream thriller, Black House has a lot to offer despite stumbling in its final third but nevertheless lacks a distinctive element to mark it out from similarly themed genre efforts of recent times.


Unsubbed trailer: