A Movie for Poets: Yun Dong-ju: The Portrait of a Poet

Yun Dong-ju 

Korean poet Yun Dong-ju (1917-1945) was one of the famous poets who died early. During his lifetime, he never experienced praise and appreciation from his country’s people. Six months before World War II ended, his poems were gathered in a manuscript and published with the title, “The Heavens and the Wind and the Stars and Poetry.” Since then, Yun Dong-ju came to be known as a notable Korean poet.

The film is fictional in parts. It talks about the friendship between Yun Dong-ju and his close friend Song Mong-Gyoo. Dong-ju: The Portrait of a Poet reflects on Yun Dong-ju’s short stay of 10 years. With plenty of quotations from his works, the movie takes us through an era that impressed him and several other Korean poets the oppression of the times. It validates how Yun’s poetry developed its sensibility.

The movie narrates how Yun (Kang Ha-Neul) and his childhood friend, Song Mong-Gyoo (Park Jeong-min) and their families lived together in Jilin, China, to escape the Japanese occupation of South Korea. Interestingly, their ideals are different—while Song is an aspiring novelist but ready to fight for his country, Yun wants to be a poet without any political motives or heeding his father’s opposition.

Yun and Song part their ways after graduating from a local school. Song decides to join the Korean Independence Movement. But, coincidentally, Yun and Song meet in the erstwhile Yeonhui Technical School in Seoul. Both of them run a literary magazine at the school. During this time, Yun meets Yeo-jin (Shin Yun-Ju), who introduces Yun to a famous poet long admired.

As the Japanese occupation intensifies, the Japanese are inconsiderate about Koreans having anything identifying their Korean nationality. Koreans are asked to change their names and forbid speaking in Korean. This impacts Yun as a poet about to graduate as he wanted to study his country’s literature. The movie shows Yun considering inevitable setbacks to go low with the tide.

After a while, both Yun and Song change their names and leave for Japan. In Japan, Song goes to Kyoto, and Yun goes to Tokyo to study at Rikkyo University, where he is discovered by a professor who appreciates Yun’s work. The familiarity between the professor and Yun brings them to Yun’s stepdaughter Kumi (Choi Hui-Seo), who has a role to help Yun grow in his career.

As World War II continues, Yun is on the tip of uncertainty—his professor transfers him to Doshisha University in Kyoto, where Yun and Song meet again. During this time, Song is preparing a secret plan with fellow Korean students sailing into the Japanese Army. Yun is least inclined, but something happens that decides their fate collectively. Directed by Lee Jook-Ik, “Dong-ju: The Portrait of a Poet” represents the dark era in black and white cinematography by Choi Yong-Jin.

The screenplay by the writer and director of Shin Yeon-Shick, “The Russian Novel” (2012), weaves sincerity in very intimate and interesting ways. Overall the film, “Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet” is a great drama that is respectful of Yun’s life and work. There is composure in the characters and poignancy that reveal the expiration of life. I am glad that if not in his body, but Yun Dong-ju continues to live through his works and this movie that immortalizes him.

SNOW by Yun Dong-ju (1917-1945)

Last night
snow fell abundantly:

on the rooftops,
on the paths, on the farms.
Perhaps it is a blanket
that keeps us from the cold.

That’s why
it falls only in the chill of the winter.


지난 밤에
눈이 소오복이 왔네

길이랑 밭이랑
덮어 주는 이불인가 봐

추운 겨울에만 나리지

Yun Dong-Ju (1917 – 1945) was born in Longjing, Jiandao, in present-day northeastern China. He was known for lyric poetry as well as resistance poetry against Japanese colonialism. Source: Korean Poetry in Translation

This Post Has One Comment

Leave a Reply