Kim Yang-hee/ South Korea/ 2017/ 110 mins
@Glasgow Film Theatre as part of the Korean Film Festival
This year’s London Korean Film Festival is touring various cities across the UK and The Poet and The Boy — directorial debut for writer and composer Yang-hee Kim — is part of the Glasgow schedule. Its plot centres on Hyeon, the titular poet in the midst of marital and artistic stagnation. Desperate to evade his wife and her drive to begin a family, Hyeon finds refuge in a nearby doughnut café where he becomes embroiled in an unexpected fascination with the teenage boy working behind the counter.
The film’s immediate impression is one of comedy: Hyeon’s irritation with his wife’s advances amuses the audience and her quirky quips create a strangely light-hearted sensibility very much at odds with much of the later content. Indeed, the off-kilter marital dynamics soon become more than just bizarre. Hyeon’s dishonesty and dismissal of his partner borders on callous while her incessant groping is fairly alarming. Eventually, there are moments that are difficult to laugh at.
The atmosphere then shifts as the central plotline comes into focus. Hyeon forms a fixation with café worker Seyun (Jung Ga-ram) that evolves from casual observation to a worrying obsession. The relationship is interesting and feels like untapped ground in film, particularly since the ‘partnership’ is very much one-sided: the poet’s investment far outweighing the boy’s. Unfortunately, the narrative moves at a fairly slow pace and, although there are some tense confrontations, there isn’t much light in any of the relationships to counterbalance them. It leaves behind questions about Hyeon’s motivations: what is he getting out of any of this? Seyun repeatedly takes his money, ignores him and never shows any real signs of affection. Sympathising or relating with the protagonist therefore becomes rather difficult. If anything, his actions are frustrating.
The film isn’t poor through and through, though. The characterisation of each player is distinctive, Ik-joon Yang‘s performance as Hyeon is sensitive, and there is some sense of growth in his character by the end. However, it feels like there is a lack of exploration of the central character’s sexuality and his tricky relationship with his brother. Likewise, his marriage never feels fully explained or believable. Instead, the tone is always just a little too superficial. Perhaps Hyeon’s moderately successful poetry could have led us to this conclusion all along. Like the film, it captures our attention at times, but doesn’t really probe big ideas satisfactorily.