Writer-director: Lee Chang-dong
Starring: Yun Jung-hee, Lee David, Kim Hira, Kim Yong-taek, Ahn Nae-sang
A former high school teacher and novelist turned filmmaker, South Korean Lee Chang-dong has, with movies like Peppermint Candy, Oasis and Secret Sunshine, crafted a body of work ripe with mesmeric understatement, shining a light on quotidian pain and delight, and locating meaning as much in how his characters don’t react to certain situations as in any more active plotting. His latest film, Poetry, the Best Screenplay award winner at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, centers on a sixtysomething grandmother who, after learning two bits of potentially devastating news, tries to center herself and find release in a poetry class at a neighborhood cultural center.
A maid by trade, Mija (Yun Jung-hee) takes care of an elderly man stricken by a stroke, and is also treated with casual dismissal by her ungrateful grandson Wook (Lee David), who lives with her. In the span of a couple days, Mija is diagnosed with the early signs of Alzheimer’s, and also learns that Wook is one of six boys accused of serially raping a school classmate who has recently commmitted suicide. One of the other boys’ fathers (Ahn Nae-sang), approaches Mija and convenes a group meeting, wherein parents of the boys agree to try to reach a financial settlement with the mother of the girl, in order to spare their children and the school any consequences. Not particularly committing one way or the other, Mija instead struggles with the creative process, seemingly yearning for the flight and safety she feels it will grant her heart, but unable to summon the right words to articulate her in-flux feelings.
Laden with metaphor and seeded with a (culturally specific, some might say) passivity that is decidedly out of step and fashion with much American cinematic storytelling, Poetry isn’t explicitly a morality play, by any stretch of the imagination. Nor is it even really a movie about the slide of dementia, like Ken Watanabe’s Memories of Tomorrow, since the onset of Mija’s condition is so minimal, as presented here. There are indications, though, that Mija, grappling with guilt, grief and a sense of her own impending mortality, is a much more active player in unfolding events than the film, at a languorous 139 minutes, has an interest in presenting. Its conclusion is marked by an intriguing blend of definitiveness and ambiguity.
Scene to scene, Poetry is achingly well constructed, and Jung-hee, after a self-imposed 16-year absence from the big screen, delivers a wonderful performance — grounded in plainness, but informed with bits of elegance and quirkiness. The most recent Korean film Poetry recalls is Bong Joon-ho’s deservedly lauded Mother, in which Kim Hye-ja’s title character also struggled mightily with the after-effects of the boy in her care (in her case, her mentally challenged son) being accused of a heinous crime.
Chang-dong, though, seems to have even less interest in the outwardly manifested impact of this on Mija, and given that this payoff subplot is so sporadically engaged and elliptically explained (a private payment impedes a police investigation how?), it has the tendency to sometimes feel like a literary device, and little more. Poetry struggles a bit, too, with the depth and shading of its supporting characters, which could offer important differentiation but instead come across largely as ciphers. All this said, the film still has a lyrical delicateness that marks it as something special, different and thought-provoking. Poetry is beautiful, just not for everyone.
Written by: Brent Simon