We traveled to modern-day South Korea and its scenic places in the previous blogs. This time, for a change, let’s go back in time and visit the Korea of the past.

Yun Dong Ju, the poet

둥주, or as it is popularly known – Dongju, The Portrait of a Poet is a 2016 biographical film on the life on Yun Dong Ju, a Korean poet. The movie is directed by Lee Jun Ik. The movie narrates the life of the poet from his time from a young student to his capture by the Japanese. Kang Ha Neul portrays the titular role of Yun Dong Ju and does a wonderful job at it. The nuances of colonial Korea are captured beautifully with the movie being filmed in black and white completely. The use of monotones in the movie strikes a chord with the audience, transporting them to the early 1900s. The movie begins with Dong Ju in prison and the rest of the story is narrated in alternate flashbacks.

Korea was under Japan’s rule until 1947. Koreans were forced to change their Korean names to Japanese names. Furthermore, the Japanese forced their education system and customs on Koreans. The rising discontent gave rise to several underground societies that propagated the idea of freedom and nationalism.

Yun Dong Ju plays an important role in Korea’s freedom struggle against Japan. He was a student of literature and he used his art to promote the idea of nationalism in the minds of the commoners. He started a magazine with other like-minded people. His poems are popular even today. He was captured by the Japanese for being involved in revolutionary activities. Dong Ju was only 27 when he passed away in a prison in Japan. The movie ends with the tragic scene of Dong Ju and Mong Gyu, Dong Ju’s best friend (played by actor Park Jung Min) being forced to give their signatures by the Japanese officials. Later, the death of Dong Ju is announced to the audience making it tragic. The movie uses Korean and Japanese throughout. The director maintains the authentic dialects which were spoken in the 1900s. What adds to the essence of the movie is that the narration and the acting by the actors seem raw and honest. It does not gloss over any details. Very few dialogues are spoken and most of the narration is quite symbolic. Say for instance the scene where Dong Ju looks in awe at his crush Lee Yeo Jin (played by actress Shin Yoon Ju) or the very ending scene where Dong Ju’s frustration, anger and sadness at his predicament is beautifully acted out by Kang Ha Neul.

Credits – 하늘 Sky on tumblr

Dongju, the Portrait of a Poet is perfect for the lovers of movies as well as history as it is a beautiful confluence that uses the moving pictures to depict one of the important stories from the Korean freedom struggle. The period drama film does justice to the story of Yun Dong Ju. One can hear Dong Ju’s original poems narrated by Kang Ha Neul as well.

Yun Dong Ju’s poems are sure to strike a chord with the literature enthusiasts. He uses simple words to express the deepest of meanings. The use of imagery in the poems is beautiful. His collections of poems Sky, Wind, Star and Poem is one of the widely read classic poem collections from the colonial era.

credits – 하늘 Sky on tumblr

Wishing not to have
so much as a speck of shame
toward heaven until the day I die,
I suffered, even when the wind stirred the leaves.
With my heart singing to the stars,
I shall love all things that are dying.
And I must walk the road
that has been given to me.
Tonight, again, the stars are
brushed by the wind.

-Foreword from Sky, Wind, Star and Poem collection by Yoon Dong Ju

Is it not just simple yet, profound? It is bound to capture the hearts of the readers.

Korean Postal Stamp featuring ‘Foreword; by Yun Dong Ji. The stamp was issued in 2001. Image credits – Korea Post

 

In Buam-dong, Jongno district – a neighborhood of Seoul, there is a small museum that showcases Yun Dong Ju’s handwritten manuscripts and several photographs. The museum was featured in some popular dramas like She was Pretty (2011), The Greatest Love (2011), A Poem a Day (2018). BTS RM had also visited the site back in 2018.

Have you read any Korean poem or novel yet? Do you have any favourites?

 

Written by

Nandini Iyengar

An aspiring translator and a writer!