The Last Princess (덕혜옹주, Hur Jin-ho, 2016)

last-princessReview of Hur Jin-ho’s The Last Princess first published by UK Anime Network.


Filmic biopics of real life historical figures are not generally known for their fierce adherence to fact, but The Last Princess (덕혜옹주, Deokhyeongjoo) is unusually honest in its approach in the sense that it includes a brief opening statement to the effect that the film pays very little attention to historical veracity. Hur Jin-ho adapts the story of Korea’s last princess, Yi Deok-hye (Son Ye-jin), as recounted in a novel by Kwon Bi-young, whilst indulging the genre he’s best known for – romantic melodrama. Another of the recent spate of films to address Korea’s colonial past, The Last Princess is the story of a woman who was fiercely loyal to her homeland, even in the face of harsh opposition and final rejection by the very people she’d been striving so hard to protect.

Told in a non-linear fashion, The Last Princess spans the majority of Deok-hye’s life from her opulent childhood in the royal palace to her eventual repatriation to Korea in the mid 1960s. In 1919, nine years after Korea had been annexed by the Japanese, Deok-hye lives in the palace with her loving father, the former Emperor (Baek Yoon-sik), and her mother, the concubine Lady Yang (Park Joo-mi). Her carefree days soon end when she witnesses her father’s death by poison and comes to understand her precarious position as puppet royalty of a subjugated regime.

Her life, and those of her remaining family members, is largely in the hands of a traitorous civil servant, Han (Yoon Je-moon), whose fierce loyalty to the Japanese emperor knows no bounds. Deok-hye is unwilling to assist him in his desire to use her as a tool to promote the “Japanisation” of the country and so is packed off to the mainland to study with the promise that she can return to live with her mother in Korea after her studies have ended. Needless to say she does not return.

In a touch of cinematic romanticism, the film elides two characters into one in the otherwise fictional character of Kim Jang-han (Park Hae-il). The son of a resistance fighter loyal to the emperor, Jang-han was betrothed to Deok-hye when they were both children and later returns to her as an adult in Japan where he is active in the Resistance, before coming back to find her years after the war. Jang-han hatches a plan to help Deok-hye and the other royal family members escape for exile in Shanghai but the the pair are eventually separated.

Recalling other recent Korean Resistance movies Age of Shadows and Assassination, The Last Princess has its share of action as Deok-hye and Jang-han attempt to escape the Japanese occupation and foster the revolution from abroad. The villain of the piece this time around is not so much the Japanese but the Koreans who willingly helped them as as exemplified here by the odious Han. Han is the most typically melodramatic character and only lacks a moustache to twirl to complete the effect. Hellbent on ingratiating himself with the Japanese, Han is determined to harness his princess’ appeal to sell the virtues of the Japanese state. When Deok-hye resolutely refuses to play along, he threatens her family members and friends in an attempt to force her compliance but finds her love for her country too strong to be bent by his egocentric cruelty.

Sent away and kept a virtual prisoner far from home, there is little Deok-hye is able to do in service of her nation. Introduced to the Resistance operating in Japan, she begins to see a way to help and eventually finds herself taking a stand when blackmailed into reading out a propaganda speech in front of a collection of forced labourers. Beginning the speech in Japanese as ordered, Deok-hye finds she cannot continue and eventually makes her real feelings known in Korean as she instructs the people in front of her not to give up, she will be right along side them fighting to regain their homeland. In a touch of Casablanca inspired drama, a chorus of Arirang suddenly springs up among the crowd, much to the consternation of the Japanese officers expecting a show of contrition, as the Princess herself is whisked off to pay a heavy price for her “betrayal”.

The Last Princess forces its heroine through constant loss – of her home, of her position, of her family, of a future, of love, of a child, of happiness, of her mind, and most importantly of her nationality. Deok-hye never wanted to be Japanese, did not travel to Japan of her own volition, and did her best to resist even at great personal cost. Nevertheless she finds eventually finds herself barred from her homeland due to opposing political concerns when the fledgling Republic fears the misuse of a powerful symbol like a royal family to frustrate the democratic future. Played with wonderful sensitivity by leading actress Son Ye-jin, Deok-hye suffers as her nation suffers, longing for independence both personal and national but finding only new cages everywhere she goes. Despite the unconvincing ageing makeup of the latter part of the film and an overly intrusive score, The Last Princess is an impressively produced prestige picture which plays its melodrama credentials to the max but is also undoubtedly moving in recounting the tragic story of its heroine whose constant misuse and lack of agency mirror much of the history of the nation she holds so dear.


Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Kai (카이 : 거울 호수의 전설, Lee Sung-gang, 2016)

photo743471Review of Korean animation Kai (카이 : 거울 호수의 전설, Kai: Geowool Hosueui Jeonseol) first published by UK Anime Network.


Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairy tale, The Snow Queen, has inspired a great number of animated classics with Disney’s Frozen not least among them. This Korean take shifts the action to the nomadic tribes of Mongolia and a young boy who failed to save his sister from a tragic accident only to see her fall into the clutches of an evil magician. Kai comes with a solid pedigree as it’s produced by one of the country’s leading animation lights in Yeon Sang-ho (King of Pigs, The Fake) and helmed by another successful director Lee Sung-gang (Yobi, The Five Tailed Fox), yet despite all of its advantages Kai still suffers from many of the same problems which continually plague Korean animation including noticeably low production values and an inability to move beyond children’s animation.

Beginning with a brief narrative voiceover detailing the origin story of the Snow Queen Hattan, the action then shifts to a convoy of nomads in Mongolia attempting to traverse a mountain in heavy snow. Youngster Kai is travelling with his family but quickly gets into trouble. Despite his mother’s desperate attempt to save both her children, only Kai is rescued with his sister Shamui falling into the snow below.

Years pass and Kai and his mother try to make a life for themselves, little knowing that Shamui is still alive but a prisoner of the Snow Queen Hatton. When Kai’s village begins to grow strangely cold, the villagers come to the realisation that the Snow Queen is back and trying to freeze the whole land. Kai, being the headstrong young man he is, decides to fight the supernatural threat all by himself entirely unaware that he is partly to blame for everything that’s going on.

Towards the end of his quest, Kai comes across a girl his sister’s age but fails to recognise his missing sibling owing to the intervening few years. Meeting again, she tells him her name is “Atta” which means “grudge” – a strange name to give a baby girl, still Kai is not the sharpest knife in the drawer and doesn’t even figure anything out when she tells him about her resentment towards the family she believes abandoned her. As in the original story, the Snow Queen seduces rather than bewitches Shamui through her emotional insecurity. Hurt and fearful, Shamui is easily taken in by the cold hearted witch who promises her protection and vengeance, even if rejecting familial warmth. The Snow Queen is not all ice as her loneliness dictates, though her inability to connect forces her to steal rather than earn loyalty as distinct from affection.

With younger audiences in mind Lee opts for a lighter tone than might be expected, moving away from the darker elements with cutesy forest folk complete with adorable spirit creatures and jovial childish rivalry between Kai and the woodland children. Though these episodes are enjoyable enough, they do detract from the overall narrative as Kai’s battle for the Snow Queen’s soul takes a back seat to the antics of a cheerful squirrel. Nevertheless, it all helps to lighten the mood even if it means that the story lacks depth as a consequence.

Kai is undoubtedly technically proficient and occasionally ambitious but also suffers from an obvious lack of production values. The TV quality animation will be turn off to those expecting a Studio Ghibli level of visual opulence but is of a fairly high standard given its limitations. Kai’s biggest problem lies in making its central battle engaging given its unwillingness to embrace the darker elements of its story in which unresolved negative emotions fester until they become infectious, forcing injured people to injure others in a mistaken attempt to heal themselves. Playing best to its target audience of younger viewers, Kai is likely to frustrate those watching with them but does offer a new take on a classic tale and enough cute characters to keep the little ones occupied.


Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (Korean subtitles only)

Cart (카트, Boo Ji-young, 2014)

cartUp until very recently, many of us lucky enough to live in nations with entrenched labour laws have had the luxury of taking them for granted. Mandated breaks, holidays, sick pay, strictly regulated working hours and overtime directives – we know our rights, and when we feel they’re being infringed we can go to our union representatives or a government ombudsman to get our grievances heard. If they won’t listen, we have the right to strike. Anyone who’s been paying attention to recent Korean cinema will know that this is not the case everywhere and even trying to join a union can not only lead to charges of communism and loss of employment but effective blacklisting too. Cart (카트), inspired by real events, is the story of one group of women’s attempt to fight back against an absurdly arbitrary and cruel system which forces them to accept constant mistreatment only to treat their contractual agreements with cavalier contempt.

Sun-hee (Yum Jung-ah) is a loyal employee at the Mart. She’s had zero penalty points for five whole years and has been told that she’s about to be transferred from a temp worker contract to a regular employee position. Run more like a cult than a supermarket, the Mart’s workers all wear pristine blue and white uniforms and recite the dramatic sounding company credo every morning, vowing to increase sales whilst honouring customer service, and are instructed to say “Welcome Beloved Customer!” to each and every visitor. Eager to take on extra overtime with no extra pay and always at the beck and call of brusque manager Choi (Lee Seung-joon), Sun-hee is respected by her colleagues but perhaps not always liked as her goody two-shoes persona both makes them look bad and encourages the management to continue taking advantage.

Sun-hee’s dreams are about to crumble when the evil corporate suits at HQ decide it would be cheaper to fire all the temp workers and use outsourced labour instead. Despite all her long years of hard work and sacrifice, not only is she not getting her secure position, she might not have a job at all. Some of the other women decide they’ve had enough with their poor working conditions and it’s worth taking the chance on forming a union to fight head office together. Sun-hee is reluctant but is eventually convinced to become one of the spokespeople, after all, if they won’t listen to miss five years no penalties, who will they listen to?

It’s worth asking the question why all these terrible jobs with low pay and frequently exploitative conditions are being done exclusively by women. All of the workers on temporary contracts are female from the cleaning staff to the shelf stackers and cashiers, but all come from different backgrounds from young university graduates to old ladies and ordinary working wives and mothers. The management is unwilling to listen to the concerns of their staff because they are “only women”, “working for pocket money” and should just be grateful that the store gave them something to do rather than being bored at home. Pointing out that many of these women are single mothers or live in difficult economic circumstances meaning they need that money to eat would likely not go down well with these fiercely conservative, wealthy executives whose only response is to tell the women not to be so silly and to stop making a fuss over nothing because the men have business to do.

After just ignoring the women fails and they decide to go on strike eventually occupying the store for a longterm sit in, the company go on the image offensive, offering minor concessions including the reinstatement of some, but not all, workers and other small improvements designed to guilt some of the employees with more pressing circumstances to cross the picket line. Eventually, they go to the extreme measures of employing armed thugs and riot police to remove the women by force. In contrast with other similarly themed films from other countries, there is no attempt to get the press onside to expose the company’s workings and the only news reports seen in the film are extremely biased, painting the women as selfish loonies making trouble for everyone by refusing to shut up and accept the status quo.

Following a fairly standard trajectory, the main narrative thrust is the gradual blossoming of near brainwashed and timid employee Sun-hee into a firebrand campaigner for social justice. Through being encouraged to stand up for the other women, Sun-hee becomes concerned not just with her own treatment but the general working environment in Korea. This new found indignation also helps rebuild her relationship with her sullen teenage son after he experiences some workplace discrimination of his own which his mother is able to sort out for him now that she is not prepared to simply smile, nod, and apologise every time someone attempts to get their own way through intimidation.

Cart treats an important issue with the kind of levity and interpersonal drama which make it primed for a screen one hit rather than a later night run in screen five catering to those already aware of the issues. It probably isn’t going to agitate for any direct social change and according to the final caption the outcome of the original incident was more of a bittersweet accomplishment rather than an outright victory. Still, the fight goes on, even if you find yourself ramming a supermarket trolley into a riot officer’s shield to get the message across – an effect which Cart mimics in its quest to ensure as many people as possible get the memo that the time for passive acceptance has long since passed.


Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Our Love Story (연애담, Lee Hyun-ju, 2016)

cyaykwjucaav5frThe history of LGBT cinema in Korea is admittedly thin though recent years have seen an increase in big screen representation with an interest in exploring the reality rather than indulging in stereotypes. The debut feature from Lee Hyun-ju, Our Love Story (연애담, Yeonaedam), is among the first to chart the course of an ordinary romance between two women with all of the everyday drama that modern love entails. A beautiful, bittersweet tale of frustrated connection, Our Love Story is a realistic look at messy first love taking place under the snowy skies of Seoul.

Yoon-ju (Lee Sang-hee) is a busy fine arts graduate student working on her final project. Busy as she is, none of Yoon-ju’s friends can get their heads around her lack of interest in dating, but Yoon-ju is happy enough on her own and doesn’t get what all the fuss is about. Whilst perusing a local junk yard looking for interesting things for her art project, something unexpected catches her eye in the form of a young woman delivering magazines but after the woman completes her business she leaves Yoon-ju’s slightly stunned field of vision, presumably forever.

Because these things happen in a city, Yoon-ju runs into the same woman again in a convenience store where she is having trouble buying cigarettes because she’s forgotten her ID and the cashier is being pedantic about the rules. Coming to the rescue, Yoon-ju buys the cigarettes for her with her ID, which leads to the opportunity of sharing one outside. The mysterious woman is named Ji-soo (Ryu Sun-young) and works part-time at a nearby bar to which she invites Yoon-ju if she happens to fancy a drink of an evening. Yoon-ju doesn’t drink, particularly, but convinces some friends to accompany her to to Ji-soo’s bar – a plan which backfires when they drink too much and argue with each other causing a scene. The two women don’t get much of an opportunity to chat and it all seems like it might end there with Yoon-ju heading home to bed only to receive an unexpected phone call from Ji-soo inviting her over for a late night drinking session.

So begins Yoon-ju’s first romance, and Ji-soo’s 78th as she later jokes. The first night slips into the first day and before long the pair have established a happy domesticity but their original euphoria is short lived as Ji-soo is due to be moving back to her hometown to live with her recently widowed father for a while. The relationship also has adverse effects on Yoon-ju’s life as she begins to neglect her art project and lets her colleagues down by forgetting important meetings, while other events leave her questioning if Ji-soo is really as committed to Yoon-ju as Yoon-ju is to her.

After Ji-soo moves back home, the pair make sure to meet up every so often either in Ji-soo’s hometown of Incheon or in Seoul but there’s an undeniable change in their relationship aside from the distance. In the city, Ji-soo had been outgoing and unafraid but in Incheon she’s a completely different person, closed off and permanently anxious. Ji-soo’s father is a more conservative and religious type who has no idea that his daughter is gay and still expecting her to get married, preferably as soon as possible. Worried that Ji-soo “does not date” he sets her up with a family friend and she has little choice but to play along even if she’s not intending to let it get anywhere. Yoon-ju’s first visit occurs while Ji-soo’s father is away, but even so Ji-soo is uncomfortable with having her in the house. When her father turns up unexpectedly one day while Yoon-ju is there, Ji-soo describes her as “a friend” and makes a point of answering all of Yoon-ju’s questions for her in case she lets something slip.

Hurt and confused, spending time in Incheon becomes a painful experience for Yoon-ju considering the permanently jumpy Ji-soo doesn’t even want her father to know she smokes, let alone anything else he might not approve of. Earlier on the relationship, Yoon-ju made the decision to confide in an old friend from her hometown and found him broadly supportive, once he got over the surprise. Ji-soo, more experienced, warns Yoon-ju that she’ll lose friends if she isn’t careful. This Yoon-ju finds out to her cost when she decides to try talking to her roommate about her troubles with Ji-soo as even someone she felt close to and had trusted suddenly rejects her. Realising you’ve placed your trust in someone who wasn’t worthy of it is a terrible feeling, but it isn’t just familial opposition the two women will be facing if they decide to make a go of things together, even in the big city.

Post Incheon, awkwardness grows and the distance deepens prompting one to fight back and the other to retreat but eventually Ji-soo appears to make her choice in way which seems cuttingly final in its coldness. Later trying to fix what she broke, Ji-soo again goes about things in an inadvisable way, still only superficially committed and unable to fully connect on a deeper level. Ending on an ambiguous, bittersweet note which seems to offer either hope or the despairing vision of an ever repeating cycle of pain, Our Love Story is a beautifully nuanced and interestingly composed addition to the Korean indie scene finally bringing a very ordinary romance to the cinema screen in all of its everyday melodrama.


Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.

Clip from halfway through the film (English subtitles)

Miss Ex (비치온더비치, AKA Bitch on the Beach, Jeong Ga-young, 2016)

bitch-on-the-beachDo you know Hong Sang-soo? So asks the heroine of Miss Ex (비치온더비치, Bitch on the Beach) as part of her nefarious mission to win back her childhood sweetheart. Unfortunately, his reply is to ask if he directed The Host, so Ga-young (Jeong Ga-young) is out of luck with her Dark Knight loving former love, but possibly in luck with us as her movie obsessed ramblings and strange stories about accidental AIDS tests during wisdom tooth extractions continue to dominate the screen for the next 90 minutes. Divided into three chapters and filmed in an oddly colourful black and white, director and leading actress’ Jeong Ga-young’s debut feature channels Hong Sang-soo by way of Woody Allen and the French New Wave but may prove funnier than all three put together.

Drunken Ga-young has invited herself over to her ex’s flat with the express intention of seducing him. Jeong-hoon (Kim-Choi Yong-joon) is sort of fed up with this kind of thing, in fact he has Ga-young listed in his phone under the name “do not answer” but she manages to bamboozle him into opening the door anyway. Ga-young has quit her job to pursue a career in the movies, though it seems she’s not having much success. Jeong-hoon knows she only calls him for a shoulder to cry on when she’s fed up but falls for it anyway. He has a girlfriend and makes it clear he’s not up for any funny business, but Ga-young is quite determined – only time will tell if Ga-young will get what she came for, or if she even really even knows what that is.

Miss Ex was originally titled “Bitch on the Beach” in Korean which, seeing as there are no beaches in this film, seems to be an obvious reference to the Hong Sang-soo movie Woman on the Beach – a similarly reflexive exercise about a film director and his relationships with a number of women who only really become fodder for his screenplay. Filming in black and white with simple, static camera set ups and concentrating on the amusing banter between its two leading characters credited only as “woman” and “man”, Hong’s influence is palpable. Ga-young is, however, a true cinephile who, after finding time to express her boredom with The Dark Knight, goes on to detail her strange dreams about other famous directors such as Bong Joon-ho (who really did direct The Host) and arguably Korea’s greatest living filmmaker Lee Chang-dong whom she asks to be her assistant director(!).

It’s fair to say the banter is more or less one sided as Jeong-hoon is forced to listen to Ga-young’s increasingly bizarre stories. Surprisingly frank and forthright in talking to her ex-boyfriend, Ga-young proceeds to tell him about various other men in her life, her sexual desires and preferences, and even those of her friends. Jeong-hoon listens patiently with occasional bemusement, but their relationship is close enough to be totally open without causing too much of a problem. Despite his protestations it’s clear Jeong-hoon is still on the hook for Ga-young, which she clearly knows, but it’s a little less clear whether she’s just keeping him there for convenience’s sake or is actively trying to win him back.

Even if Hong Sang-soo is the obvious reference point, he is after all referenced in the text, Miss Ex also owes a debt to the breeziness of the French New Wave and its freewheeling absurdity. Cutting between amusing silliness and understated emotional drama Miss Ex is perfectly posed to examine the various trials and tribulations of romance among contemporary young people. Ga-young is, perhaps, too modern for the slightly more conservative Jeong-hoon who tells her that her problems with men mostly stem from being too quick to take the lead and also constantly picks her up on her “unladylike” colourful language. One gets the impression Ga-young might not be very good for Jeong-hoon who eventually jeopardises his relationship with his current girlfriend to keep her happy, but whatever anyone else thinks about it, it seems as if he won’t be giving up on her any time soon. Cute, quirky and extremely smart, Miss Ex is an accomplished debut from director and leading lady Jeong Ga-young who marks herself out as an interesting new indie voice in Korean cinema.


Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

A Mere Life (벌거숭이, Park Sang-hun, 2012)

%e1%84%87%e1%85%a5%e1%86%af%e1%84%80%e1%85%a5%e1%84%89%e1%85%ae%e1%86%bc%e1%84%8b%e1%85%b5_%e1%84%91%e1%85%a9%e1%84%89%e1%85%b3%e1%84%90%e1%85%a5Anyone who follows Korean cinema will have noticed that Korean films often have a much bleaker point of view than those of other countries. Nevertheless it would be difficult to find one quite as unrelentingly dismal as A Mere Life (벌거숭이, Beolgeosungi). Encompassing all of human misery from the false support of family, marital discord, money worries, and the heartlessness of con men, A Mere Life throws just about everything it can at its everyman protagonist who finds himself trapped in a well of despair that not even death can save him from.

Park Il-rae (Kin Min-hyuk) and his wife Yurim (Jang Liu) own a small supermarket which isn’t doing so well. After approaching both of their parents for help and getting a flat no from both directions, the couple decide to throw all of their savings into buying a delivery van to increase their business potential. Il-rae excitedly travels into the city to sign the paperwork but gradually realises something is wrong when the salesman suddenly disappears. Having lost all of the family’s money, Il-rae travels home dejected and hits on a drastic solution – a family suicide. Poisoning his wife and son, Il-rae means to die too but survives even more burdened by guilt and regret than before. More failed suicide attempts follow as Il-rae attempts to come to terms with his actions, somehow surviving yet all but dead inside.

There really is no hope for Park Il-rae. At the very beginning of the film, the family visit a park in which his wife urges their son to make a wish by adding a stone to the top of a cairn, only to see the whole thing suddenly collapse in front of them like a grim harbinger of the way their lives are about to implode. Il-rae tries to repair the pile, but all to no avail. This quite awkward family trip in which Il-rae moodily strides on ahead will actually be the happiest they ever are, away from the destructive domestic environment where money troubles and male pride cast a shadow over an otherwise ordinary family life.

Both Il-rae and his wife seem to have strained relationships with their parents. Il-rae tries his own father first in the quest for help only for him to angrily tell his son to man up. When his wife visits her parents (alone with the couple’s little boy) it’s the first time she’s seen them in a decade and they are fairly nonplussed that it’s money she’s come for. After Yurim delicately states her predicament, her father tells her that he can’t help because he now has lots of hobbies which all require money. Offering perhaps the worst piece of fatherly advice ever uttered, he suggests she take up something fun herself and not worry about money so much.

The worse things get the more the family fragments. Il-rae drinks while the couple’s son seems to be addicted to video games. Faced with an obnoxious man who thoughtlessly parks his expensive car directly in the doorway of their store yet refuses to move because “he’ll only be a few minutes”, Il-rae is only saved from doing something stupid by his wife physically pushing him out of the way, but her physical dominance only worsens his sense of impotence. After making his drastic and irreversible decision, Il-rae is left alone and reeling from the worst kind of failure and regret. From this point on he’s marooned in his very own limboland, hovering on the brink of life and death.

Beginning with POV shots of a car dutifully following the only path laid out for it, A Mere Life states its bleak indie intentions right away as the gloomy lyrics of a folk tune run in the background constantly making reference to a despair which not even death could comfort. Recalling the great misery epics of the ‘70s, Park Sang-hun films with an anxious, unblinking camera save for the ominous shaky cam shots of a man facing the sea which begin and end the film. Il-rae may have made a decision as regards a future, but it remains unclear if there is any hope of salvation waiting for him. A Mere Life is never is never an easy watch thanks to its unshaking bleakness, but its strength of purpose and uneasy mix of morality play and character drama make for an unusual, interesting independent feature debut.


Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

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)