Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet (Film Review)

Rating: 5 out of 5.

“What’s the use of literature, if it doesn’t change the world?”

– Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet

As of a few days ago, the Korean Embassy in Greece granted me the honour of choosing me as a contributing writer and part of its “Korea Supporters” team. Needless to say, my pen rushed to the paper (or my fingers to the laptop keyboard, to be more precise ~) just as the immense gratitude was only starting to sink in. ✒

So, without any further ado, if you’re in poetry mood and in search of new reading (and film-watching) sources, this post is tailor-made for you. Enjoy and feel free to comment!

Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet

(Director: Lee Joon-Ik, Screenplay: Shin Yeon-Shick, Cast: Kang Ha-Neul, Jung-Min Park, Music: Mowg, Duration: 110′, Release year: 2016)

동주” (Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet) is a biopic based on the life of poet Yun Dong-Ju (윤동주, 1917-1945). Taking place during the colonial period in Korea, the film follows the artist’s years as a student up until his imprisonment by the Japanese authorities in 1945.

A few words about the poet: Yun Dong-Ju is undoubtedly one of Korea’s most well-known and beloved poets. Displaying an unaffected and honest way of expression, which attains a unique balance between lyricism and existentialism, his poems convey his worries as well as hopes for his nation’s future; Dong-Ju’s verses cannot but speak straight to the heart. The poetry collection titled “Sky, Wind, Stars and Poetry”, which was published posthumously in 1948, is regarded as one of the greatest treasures of Korean literature.

Korean Poet Yun Dong Ju
Korean Poet Yun Dong-ju

The film “Dongju” is directed by Lee Joon-Ik, the man behind the cinematic lens of the commercially and critically successful “The King and the Clown”. For “Dongju,” Lee Joon-Ik opts for the arthouse path, with the narration unfolding on black and white canvas, incorporating the poet’s very own verses too, like wistful notes against the grim background of the story. The result is, at the very least, poetic.

Built around a heartrending script and laced with beautiful music, the film is of course further graced by the profoundly emotional performances of the cast, like Kang Ha-Neul’s in the title role (including his participation in the soundtrack with the song “자화상” [Self-portrait]) and Park Jung-Min’s, who portrays Song Mong-Kyu, the artist’s cousin-close friend and passionate member of the independence movement. As the young student Dongju becomes more vividly aware of the direness of life under the occupation regime as well as its impact on the innocent dreams of youth, struggling in the midst of all of this with his own self-discovery, we see the poet Dongju being born before our very eyes.

Among its numerous nominations and accolades, the film has also won the following awards:

  • Grand Prize and Best New Actor – Park Jung-Min (52th Baeksang Arts Awards)
  • Best Screenplay – Shin Yeon-Shick and Best New Actor – Park Jung-Min (37th Blue Dragon Film Awards)

Above everything else, the film “Dongju” is a hymn to humanism, ideals and art, particularly as seen through the lens of poetry. Art is once again celebrated as a unique channel of expression, especially in times when human existence seeks more than ever to be healed, but also to realize its full potential. “Dongju” is an ode to sensitivity as an inconceivable force, capable of changing the world.

(You can also find the Greek version of this article (again, written by me) on the facebook page of the Korean Embassy in Greece ( 주 그리스 대한민국).)

Other articles of mine for the Korean Embassy in Greece:

The Abandoned Princess Bari

A Stroll in the Book World of Korea – Part I (English version)

Im Jiho, ‘The Wandering Chef’


Further link:

Confessions – poem by Yun Dong-Ju (Sky, Wind, Stars and Poetry)


Yun Dong-ju – Korean Literature Now

South Korea figure: The poet Yun Dong-ju

Cover photo:

“Dongju – The Portrait of a Poet’ official film poster


There can hardly be a more dystopian landscape than that which war leaves in its aftermath.

Dystopias have often proven awfully close to our reality. YT-79605 explores a world where emotions are not facets of human nature but reasons for one’s irrevocable condemnation.

It’s a world that hopefully shall never exist.

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