Friday, February 3, 2017

Review: DONGJU: THE PORTRAIT OF A POET Offers Sober and Compelling Look at Korean History

By Pierce Conran

During the last year, the floodgates have opened for the Japanese Occupation Period in mainstream Korean cinema, yet The King and the Clown (2005) helmer Lee Joon-ik, arguably Korea's top purveyor of commercial period fare, has opted to tackle the period with his first ever indie film, and shot in black and white no less. A sober account of a difficult time in modern Korean history, Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet combines a young cast with a literary script, delivering one of the most unique Korean period films of recent memory.

Lee's film follows the life of the poet Yun Dong-ju, who became known for his lyrical poetry at a young age before using his skills to focus on Korea's colonial oppressors, the Japanese Empire. While his childhood friend becomes involved in the underground resistance against Japan, Dong-ju hesitates to move beyond the written word.

What sets Lee's latest apart from his other work is a script by indie director Shin Young-sik (who also serves as producer). Known for expressive arthouse fare such as The Russian Novel (2012) and The Avian Kind (2014), Shin's works relies heavily on dialogue and often deal with the lives of literary figures. Shin's style and concerns come through clearly in a film with a more polished sheen as director Lee reigns in some of his commercial tactics while offering the project the breadth of his extensive storytelling knowhow. The result is a unique work that comfortably falls between the indie and mainstream realms and handily became a crossover hit in Korea when released earlier this year.

Playing the real-life figure, young star Kang Ha-neul (Empire of Lust, 2015) acquits himself well with a restrained performance that his light on dialogue and heavy on expression but the real star of the show is Park Jung-min (Tinker Ticker), playing the poet's passionate rebel friend, who rises to the big leagues after years of putting in top drawer performances in low-budget festival titles. Charismatic and comfortable with the scenario's sometimes verbose flurries, Park shines as a natural talent clearly heading for meatier lead roles in the future.

While Korean audiences were surprisingly large for Dongju, outside of its native country the heavy nature of its historical bent make the film a trickier proposition for foreign audiences. Yet, the film's easy, languid style combined with its attractive lensing and fluid narrative align it securely with last year's many standout Korean commercial titles.


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