South Korean director Kim Yang-hee delivers a measured first feature that brilliantly crosses the boundaries between comedy and drama set in a Jeju Island untouched by touristic exploitation.
There is just one scene in the otherwise lustfully platonic THE POET AND THE BOY drenched with voyeuristic eroticism. Listless poet Taek-gi (Yank Ik-june) happens to be in the loo of the doughnut shop when the boy who works there and had already caught the man’s attention is heatedly making out with a girl in one of the toilets. Shifting from the poet’s initial confusion to the girl’s hand slowly sliding into Se-yun’s (Jung Ga-ram) jeans and back again to the man unexpectedly aroused, the two lock their eyes for a brief moment. It’s enough for Taek-gi to fall into a pit of both doubts and sexual awakening. Kim Yang-hee’s bold and intriguing directorial debut, the film hints to Thomas Mann’s novella Death in Venice following the progressive infatuation of the poet with the boy and the up and downs of his poetic inspiration.
Indulging in his unsatisfying life as a second-rate, rather depressed, timid poet and awkward school teacher, Taek-gi struggles to find a new compelling poetic voice to nibble once again at that success he seems to have fleetingly achieved a long time before. His artistic attempts are nothing more than average as his life and his marriage of convenience are too boring a subject to even start to appeal to his poetic muse. One doughnut after another, the poet seems to slowly awaken from the numbness of his domestic routine and start getting more and more involved with Se-yun’s family drama. Starting off as a wry comedy on a man who has surrendered to a pointless life, THE POET AND THE BOY hits the right spots serving a fair amount of comic relief just before switching its tone and flipping over to the dramatic without losing its edge.
As soon as Taek-gi plunges into his own desire opening up to the possibility of being sexually attracted to a young man, he is heavily frowned upon by both his best friend and his wife. Although the film doesn’t seem so much concerned with tackling homophobia as it is with dissecting the poet’s heart, it doesn’t come as a surprise that the insular, family-oriented world of Jeju Island isn’t exactly a paradise of freedom. The impossible love between the characters sparks a change in the poet who, once an apathetic being, turns out to be braver than he ever thought he could be. Precariously balancing the unselfish love he nurtures towards the boy and his stifled lust, Taek-gi is ready to dismantle his own family and face disgrace to finally have his chance at happiness with the one he truly loves.
The many scenes at Se-yun’s house that help to shed a light on the boy’s complicated kinships don’t detract attention from the throbbing core of the film, they rather add to the boy’s background and his relationship with the poet. Both of them are presented as outcasts – Taek-gi hardly performs his role of breadwinner but wallows in his artistic delusion while Se-yun dropped out of school to help his family make ends meet – and somehow gravitate towards a liminal space where feelings shouldn’t have a name and taboos shouldn’t be broken. Racing toward its breaking point, THE POET AND BOY is an aching story of missed opportunities, of a life destined to founder in a sea of bitter regrets and another about to sail off into a future brimming with possibilities.
THE POET AND THE BOY was screened at the Edinburgh’s Filmhouse as part of the London Korean Film Festival 2018 touring program.