By: Henry J. Fromage (Three Beers) –
You don’t have to be a Hollywood filmmaker to make a “Oscar film”- there’s a particular type and it’s unmistakable when you see it.
I’m going to keep dragging out this peach because it’s so right on.
Dongju is just such a film- black and white period piece about an artist (Korean poet Yoon Dongju) who stood up against his oppressors (the Japanese occupation) and was martyred gruesomely for his troubles (injected with salt water just to see what happens because you’re an Axis power and you have to take this Evil thing as far as it will go).
Like a lot of “Oscar films”, Dongju clearly has plenty of care and craftsmanship put into it. Director Lee Joon-ik presides over some handsome black and white cinematography and immaculate costuming and set design. To the latter, he shoots much of the film almost like a stage play, with his camera playing across stage-like barns and kitchens while his characters monologue, the theatricality giving the film gravitas.
Without quite going to Lars von Trier lengths…
Dongju is also laudable in how it doesn’t blanket demonize the Japanese, not shying away from awful true history like the medical experiments he was subjected to in his internment camp, but also devoting a lot of time to his studies in Japan, his conscientious objector Japanese professor and his daughter who he was great friends with. This idyll in which these intelligent people of diverse backgrounds make each other better just serves to deepen the pain when the totalitarian state rising in the background jumps to the fore.
Finally, while the acting is more hit than miss, but definitely featuring some miss, the ending intercut interrogations of Dongju (Kang Ha-neul) and his lifelong friend and radical (Park Jung-min) play like dual Oscar moments (or Grand Bell moments- the Korean equivalent) as the two have very different reactions to their impending deaths. For my money, Park comes out on top, but it’s one hell of a scene for both of them.
Forget Oscar, this is way cooler.
Of course, there’s also the negative connotation of “Oscar film” and Dongju falls prey to a lot of the same issues of unfulfilled pretension (mild, but detectable) and dramatic monologues. Lottsss of monologues, featuring dialogue like “what is more important- individuality or totalitarianism?” Spell out dem themes, college freshman style.
This film also feels longer than it should be, featuring very placid pacing and clearly more interest in its speeches and ideas over any incident and plot. You can lose your way if you start to tune out the speechifying, even though the film itself is very linear and traditional.
Dongju: Portrait of an Poet is a great watch for history buffs (like me!), particularly those unfamiliar with this aspect of World War II. For anybody else, though, it may be a bit of a snooze.
Dongju: Portrait of a Poet (2016) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: “revolution” or “communism”
Take a Drink: for each poem
Take a Drink: whenever we return to the interrogation
Do a Shot: for injections