Release Date: May 13th 2010 (South Korea)
Running Time: 139 mins.
Director: Lee Chang-Dong
Writer: Lee Chang-Dong
Starring: Yun Jung-Hee, Lee Da-Wit, Kim Hui-Ra, Ahn Nae-Sang, Kim Yong-Taek, Park Myeong-Sin, Min Bok-Gi, Kim Hye-Jung, Hong Gyung-Yun, Kang Eun-Jin, Kim Min-Jae, Park Hyun-Woo, Kim Jong-Goo, Jang Hye-Jin
There are no direct spoilers (well, maybe one in the footnotes) but you will be far more moved if you go in with zero expectations.
Poetry is a film by Lee Chang-Dong, a man known for tackling hard subjects in films like Peppermint Candy and Oasis. It won the prize for best script at the 2010 Cannes film festival. It stars Yun Jung-Hee, the most celebrated actress in Korean cinema, who came out of a fifteen year retirement to play the role. It is a mesmerising and beautiful contemplative film with a searing ending that displays the brilliance of the director and the lead actress.
Poetry begins with a shot of fast-flowing water and a bridge. We hear children’s voices in distance. Cut to a body floating down a river. It is a girl in a school uniform.
Cut to a hospital waiting room, a woman in her 60’s named Mi-Ja (Yun Jung-Hee) is visiting a doctor with complaints about her right arm feeling prickly. What seems like a routine check-up ends with her finding out that she has Alzheimer’s. Mi-Ja leaves the hospital and sees a woman (Park Myeong-Sin) walking around stunned at the death of her daughter but she cannot stop and watch as she has to go to her part-time job as a carer for a stroke victim named Mr. Kang (Kim Hui-Ra). After work Mi-Ja hears about a young girl jumping off a bridge from Kang’s daughter-in-law but ignores it as she heads home to care for her teenage grandson Jong-Wook (Lee Da-Wit) who she raises alone and finds an unresponsive and inconsiderate person.
Her life is a quiet and contained one which ignores the troubles of the world by adopting numbing simple routines that has deadened her appreciation of the world. This deadness is removed by the very real spectre of Alzheimer’s which will tear away her understanding of everything from the abstract beauty of the world to the concrete details of life. It is this that prompts Mi-Ja to join a literary class for the public and pursue her long-held dream of becoming a poet. The goal for the pupils is that at the end of a one month class (two lessons a week), the pupils must have written one poem. Easy, right? Not for Mi-Ja who cannot find her poetic voice.
Worse is to come when she finds out that Jong-Wook may have been involved with the girl who was seen floating down the river at the beginning. We will witness Mi-Ja’s awakening to all that is ugly, hurtful and ultimately all that is beautiful in life.
Poetry is first and foremost a character study. The film is told in what feels like a documentary fashion. Indeed, the poetry class Mi-Ja enrols in has different people speak direct to camera in monologues about the most beautiful time in their life. The camera observes everybody with a degree of detachment. Scenes unfurl at what feels like a natural pace with no fast editing or ostentatious cuts.
The camera hardly moves in some scenes and when it does it is to capture the normality of the world as a whole and the individual within it in a simple pan or tracking shot. Witness the scene when we see the mother staggering around the hospital car park in a state of emotional shell-shock. We are not let in to her agony, the camera circles her and captures the fact that life carries on around her, people gawk at her and police just stand around and cars buzz by on journeys, remove the actress and it is a scene of normality and it is not until later that we understand her relation to the rest of the film. Indeed Mi-Ja’s introduction is so low-key you could miss her as she sits amongst patients in a waiting room.
This observation is key in allowing us an insight into Mi-Ja as a person and allowing us to explore complex and ambiguous aspects of reality as we see how people interact with her.
At the start of the film all we see is a pretty old woman who has lived a harmless life that has had its moments of fun but is drifting to finality but now, because she is suffering memory loss she is inspired to be a poet. Mi-Ja is beautiful and stylish when compared to others, maybe not an intellectual but one of the world’s nice people, liked by nearly all who know her. We root for her in her ambition to write poetry and there are many scenes that show her searching for her creative impulse. When asked to look at an apple – really look at one and discover something about it – she says, “Apples are better for eating than looking at”.
“If you really see something, you can feel it.” The poetry teacher tells her. For a sophisticated audience of cinephiles we, perhaps condescendingly, smile for we find humour in seeing the very literal Mi-Ja struggle with poetry but as we observe we feel how painful it is for her as she tries to find the words and unlock the ideas inside her as she desperately observes things and implores people about how they get inspiration.
We feel it all the more because we know Mi-Ja has Alzheimer’s and the script peppers scenes where she forgets simple verbs and nouns and she gets distracted from important conversations by flowers and then the film becomes incredibly dark when the death of the girl is explored.
The nature of the crime is genuinely horrific. Mi-Ja has never faced anything like it before and she soon discovers that the world she has so-far ignored contains evil and corruption and that people’s responses are banal¹. Perhaps she recognises something in the girl and by exploring the death she (and the audience) realise that nobody really sees either of them as a person. At least I got the sense that people view Mi-Ja merely as a grandmother or a servant and not a human. Perhaps this realisation that she has more to offer creates a feeling of rage which unlocks her inner-spirit. Whatever the case the death acts as a charge that strengthens Mi-Ja and, as a result, the overall narrative as it unlocks the creative force within her for an end sequence which is one of the best I have seen in any film as we see life play out and the poetry she has written is narrated. I actually cried during the final shots. I dare you not to cry.
Yun Jung-Hee as Mi-Ja is absolutely stunning. Her performance is one that beguiles the audience into viewing her as the world sees her, a harmless old woman which aids the narrative. I smiled at her initial performance and was astounded by the transformation. The gradual blossoming of iron in her spirit was gratifying which made the ending all the more powerful. The patient style of the film allows us to see this transformation and the way the script handles the twists and turns is masterful. The combination of script, actress and direction are perfect. I came to this realisation during final sequence: we have seen human life in all of its ugliness and beauty and we have seen the possibilities offered by change. It has opened our eyes to the ambiguity in human experience and it is inspirational.
¹ Potential Spoiler In a scene where fathers have gathered together with Mi-Ja I found their indifference staggering and infuriating. They actually think they can use their money and wealth to erase a heinous crime which has destroyed a life. All they see is an obstacle that can be paid off with compensation money and not a human life wasted. The misogyny I detected in K-horror films Bedevilled and I Saw the Devil (which were made in the same year as Poetry) is far far more scarier here as it is absolutely real and seemingly inculcated in males from a young age.