Poetry: Interview with Director Lee Chang-Dong

Director’s Statement

These are times when poetry is dying away. Some lament such loss, while others claim, “Poetry deserves to die.” Regardless, people continue to read and write poetry. What does it mean then to be writing poetry when prospects of an ongoing future seem dismal? This is a question I want to pose to the public. But in fact, it is a question I pose to myself as a filmmaker: What does it mean to be making films at times when films are dying away?

Film’s Title?

Normally I decide the film title at a fairly early stage. If I don’t do this, I cannot convince myself that the film will be made at all. A few years ago, there was a case in which several teenage boys from a small rural city gang-raped a middle school girl. For quite some time, I’d been thinking about this act of violence, but I wasn’t sure how I would tell the story on film.

Then one morning in a hotel room in Kyoto, Japan, I was watching TV when the title, Poetry, just came to me. I think it was a TV program made for tourists spending sleepless nights. As I watched the screen playing meditative music to the extremely typical landscape of birds flying over a peaceful river and fishermen throwing their fishnets, it hit me that this film dealing with this insidious crime could have no other title. The main character and plot were conceived almost at the same time. My companion during that trip was an old friend who is a poet. When I told him about the title and the plot I was thinking about, he [told me that he thought it was an] extremely reckless project. He warned me that the several successes I had with my previous films–although they may have only been small successes–had made me overly confident. But strangely enough, his words only reinforced my conviction.

Actress Yun Jung-hee

I assume the young audience in their twenties will be unfamiliar with Yun Jung-hee. The generation gap is quite deep in Korean cinema. From the start, or when I thought of a woman in her mid-sixties, I recalled Yun Jung-hee. It came so naturally, as if it was an undoubted fact. It didn’t matter that she had been away from the film scene for the past 15 years. The main character’s name is Mija, which is in fact Yun Jung-hee’s real name. It wasn’t intentional, but a coincidence.

Subject of Dementia

‘Dementia’ was a word that came to me almost at the same time I thought of all three key elements of the film: the title, Poetry; a female character in her sixties attempting for the first time in her life to write a poem; and an old lady bringing up a teenage boy all by herself.

As our protagonist learns poetry, she begins to forget words as well. Dementia clearly alludes to death. The poet conducting the lecture never talks about the techniques of poetry writing, but emphasizes scrupulous attention to ‘really seeing things.’ Likewise, can we relate poetry to film? Yes. ‘To see things well’ refers to poetry, but it also refers to film as well. Certain films help us see the world in a different light. And some films let us see

only what we want to see while others keep us from seeing anything.

Poetry as Theme and Structure

Like a page with a poem on it, I thought of a film with a lot of empty space. This empty space can be filled in by the audience. In this sense, you can say this is an ‘open’ film.

Wook’s Crime and the Detective

When the detective shows up, it is Mija’s secret as well as the film’s. It is the audience’s role to find out what the secret is. Mija would not have wanted to reveal her secret to anyone. However, there are a few but perhaps sufficient hints presented in the film. For example, when we see the detective by her side as she is crying alone outside the restaurant, or when she suddenly treats Wook to pizza, bathes him, cuts his toenails and summons his mother to visit. But I didn’t want to show it directly, but suggest it to the audience as a ‘morality play’ of the medieval ages. The audience can make a choice–or, rather, play a game that requires a moral choice, just like the protagonist has to. Of course such a game can be too subtle for the audience to even recognize.

Mija’s Sex with Mr. King

Different t thoughts go through Mija’s mind when she grants the old man this merciful deed? Before she makes her decision to have sex with him, she goes to the river where the girl had died and stands in the rain, deep in contemplation, for quite some time. It must have been deep and complex thoughts that captivated her. She would have brooded over the sexual desires of immature boys that drove a young girl to her death, and the sexual desires of an old man who begs her to let him be a man for the last time. For some contradictive reason, she decides to grant him this wish. It might have been nothing but pure compassion, but regardless, when she demands to him for money, she dishonors this deed. Sadly enough, it is an inevitable choice she makes.

Film’s Visual Echo.

Can poetry be found even in a dishwashing basin? Mija’s hat falling into the water recalls the young girl’s suicide.

In the film, the red flower is related to blood. Beauty is often connected to filthiness. And flowers that are considered beautiful often turn out to be man-made. The hat falling into the river recalls the young girl’s suicide, but moreover, it hints at Mija’s own fate.

Film’s Conclusion

In the last part, when we hear Mija’s voice reading her poem, we can feel her absence, but we don’t know where she has gone.

I want to leave as a blank for the audience to fill in. Yet there is a hint. The flow of the river in the last part of the film emotionally suggests that Mija has accepted the girl’s fate as her own. Like the thoughts evoked from the apricots fallen to the ground.

Agnes is the dead girl’s baptized name. Accordingly, the one poem Mija leaves to the world is written on behalf of the young girl. In the young girl’s place, Mija speaks what the young girl actually wanted to say to the world. So we can say the two have become one through a poem.

Poetry in Times When Poetry is Dying Away

I just wanted to throw this question at the audience. The audience now holds the key to the answer to this question. Nevertheless, one of my thoughts on poetry is that it sings on behalf of someone’s emotions and thoughts. If someone were to ask me why I make films, I could answer by saying, ‘I am telling your story on your behalf.