'The Poet and the Boy' ('Si-e-nui sa-rang'): Film Review | TIFF 2017

Courtesy of TIFF
Yang Ik-june in Kim Yang-hee' s 'The Poet and the Boy.'
A promising if flawed debut.

Debuting distaff director Kim Yang-hee explores queer desire and family structures in this comedy-drama starring 'Breathless' director and star Yang Ik-june.

A young and handsome donut-place employee becomes an unlikely source of inspiration for a married, thirtysomething bard in The Poet and the Boy (Si-e-nui a-rang), the feature debut from female filmmaker Kim Yang-hee. Morphing from a somewhat conventional comedy into a poignant tale of suppressed emotions and familial interdependence, this is clearly a first work with several issues, especially in its midsection, that’s nonetheless promising and already makes one wonder what Kim will do next. The film premiered in Toronto in the Next section.

Hyon Taek-gi (Yang Ik-june) is a bespectacled man of letters with a perpetually absent look on his face that could suggest he’s either in deep thought or he’s putting on a poker face to hide his true feelings. The early going presents him as the clueless comic foil for the members of his poetry group, who decide they need to offer him some much-needed constructive criticism, and then for his wife, Mrs. Hyon (Jeon Hye-jin, Venus Talk), who is desperate to have a baby. Taek-gi’s longtime friends are also wondering why they don’t have children yet and director Kim even manages to turn Hyon’s low sperm count into a chuckle-inducing punchline more than once.

But the corny music choices and camera effects like sudden zooms that help imbue an old-fashioned if clearly comedic slant to the material disperse the more Taek-gi starts noticing Seyun (Jung Ga-ram), an angelic-looking boy who works at the new donut place across the street in the little seaside town where the Hyons live, on Jeju Island. “Sweet stuff makes you feel better,” his wife tells him as she literally stuffs a whole donut into her husband’s mouth in one of the film’s last gags — even though we’re still in act one — but though donut boy will become important for the poet, he isn’t exactly sweet himself. The feelings he elicits in Taek-gi aren’t just those of confusion or pure, platonic love, either, as something stirs in his nether regions when he sees Seyun make out with a girl. Indeed, though the film features no nudity, sex and sexuality are treated in a disarmingly frank way in the dialogue.

As the film progresses, it becomes clear that Seyun is a kind of dark-haired, jersey-wearing version of Thomas Mann’s Tadzio. This casts Taek-gi in the von Aschenbach role of the creatively blocked artist whose imagination might blossom from basking in the presence of such a youthful beauty but whose infatuation with him could turn into a ruinous obsession. As the duo get acquainted, the wife gets increasingly jittery about how this unlikely friendship might be connected to Taek-gi’s disinterest in their marriage and fostering kids. Kim manages to draw some interesting parallels here, including exploring — in, it has to be underlined, a completely non-icky way — what some of the similarities are between a desire for a lover and a child, with the unconditional love and care aspects obviously important in both types of scenarios.

A little more of the boy’s family history is also revealed as Kim segues into the second act, with it becoming clear he’s a high-school dropout with an ailing father and a mother who’s none to happy about the lack of prospects or respect of her son toward his family and his future. Kim, who also wrote the screenplay, doesn’t quite manage to organize all her material properly here. A few subplots are launched — such as the one involving the girl Seyun makes out with or another involving a primary-school kid who wants to become a poet so he can meet girls — and then never heard of again. What’s even more problematic is that the film can’t quite decide where its point-of-view lies, with the writer-director frequently staying close to Taek-gi but Kim then adding a few scenes, such as the one in a tea house where Seyun has a conversation with Taek-gi’s wife, where the poet isn’t present and won’t find out until much later what was discussed.

The family background of the boy is also a bit awkwardly handled, as Seyun as a character seems to exist more as a beauteous but largely undefined entity separate from his family than as either the product of his circumstances and experience or, because he has decided to rebel against them, their logical opposite. Staying close to the poet’s point-of-view turns his new muse automatically into a more idealized character, a tendency that doesn’t quite jive with Seyun’s realistic and quite dark family background. The third act’s bid to open up the story to suggest something about how intolerant Korean society can be also feels grafted on rather than an organic extension of what has come before.

Technically, the film also doesn’t reinvent the wheel but Kim has a few aces up her sleeve that keep things involving and they are her respectful and complex treatment of the possibly bisexual Taek-gi and the quietly riveting performance of Yang Ik-june, most famous for the 2008 festival hit Breathless, which he also directed. Through Taek-gi’s poems and the savvy evolution of the ambiguous rapport between the man and the boy, Kim manages to suggest something of the inner world of someone whose eyes have been opened to beauty and who wants to be near the person that gives him not only joy but has also given his own creative endeavors new life.

Production company: Jin Pictures
Cast: Yang Ik-june, Jeon Hye-jin, Jung Ga-ram
Writer-Director: Kim Yang-hee
Producer: An Young-jin
Executive producer: Seo Jung
Director of photography: Choi Yun-man
Production designer: Ryu Seon-kwang
Editor: Lee Young-lim
Casting: Koo Ja-wan
Sales: Finecut
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Discovery)

In Korean
No rating, 110 minutes