Hyun Taek-ki (Yang Ik-june) is struggling to find meaningful inspiration for his poems, or motivation to do anything with his life really. His strong-willed wife (Jeon Hye-jin) is determined to have a baby, even when he’s not interested, and his colleagues belittle him for pursuing a profession that’s unlikely to make him any money. But his luck seems to change when he meets the young man (Jung Ga-ram) who works in the donut shop that just opened near his home. He’s inexplicably drawn to him, experiencing a sexual awakening that both confuses and liberates him as a poet.
When he tries to explain what’s happening to his best friend he’s treated with contempt, the boy’s friends call him a pervert for feeling an attraction to a man, and even his wife finds it ridiculous. In a country where gay marriage still hasn’t been legalised, this reaction and views seems to be -unfortunately- the norm for many. Through its subtle storytelling and the innocent relationship between the two lead male characters, The Poet and the Boy proves to be an interesting examination of the LGBTQ+ experience in South Korea.
Yang Ik-June gives a quiet yet powerful performance in the lead role, portraying his character as both pathetic and endearing. Taek-ki is a hopeless romantic, unable to keep control of the situation around him as the boy struggles to know what to do with this newfound attention. The boy is hot and cold with the poet, treating him with contempt one second and offering him free donuts the next — something which Jung Ga-ram does well to portray here. Given the character’s age, this isn’t entirely unexpected, and the somewhat toxic relationship between them brings to mind Jung Ji-woo’s A Muse.
What is frustrating as a viewer is the treatment received by both characters by others at the possibility of them being gay. Given the achievements of the LGBTQ+ community in recent years, the views depicted here seem backwards, even the way the poet and the boy deal with their emotions appears stilted. There’s a sense that they’re not allowed to be with each other no matter how they feel, and this is something that is especially apparent during the film’s final scenes. It’s also frustrating that the poet’s story ends with a more ‘conservative’ path in front of him.
The Poet and the Boy screened as part of the London Korean Film Festival and will screen across the country as part of their touring film programme from November 16-25.