Poetry

By Patrick McGavin

Cannes Film Fest 2010–A story of an older woman’s quest to rejuvenate her life artistically and intellectually in the aftermath of an unpardonable offense, Lee Chang-dong’s extraordinary “Poetry” is a serene and poetic rumination about memory and faith that feels right in every detail.

 Lee, the former minister of culture, has produced his greatest achievement to date. A fascinating corollary to his previous work, the 2007 Cannes competition work “Secret Sunshine,” winner of the best actress prize for Jeon Do-yeon and dealing with a woman coping with the death of her husband,

“Poetry” distills the essence of his art. That feeling of disruption extends to the early passages of the film that swirl around the daily activities of Mija (Yun), a 66-year-old woman who lives with her grandson (Lee David). She is introduced at the doctor’s office, complaining about pain in her arm that after the doctor’s deeper inquiries leads to her admission of short term memory loss, like forgetting words, “verbs and nouns,” she says. At the hospital, Mija sees the mother of the girl whose body was found in the water. Her death has been ruled a suicide.

Mija also discovers the girl was a classmate of her grandson, a 16-year-old student whom upon deflecting her questions, the boy says he did not know her very well. Mija lives a quiet, tidy, even somewhat unremarkable life.She gets by, barely, on a government pension and working a couple days a week as a private nurse and maid to Kang (Kim Hira), a cantankerous older man whose own daughter-in-law remarks frequently of what a notorious cheapskate he is.

By the standards, no doubt of her generation, of her class, even the closed off culture, Mija is something of a wild card. She has an artist’s spirit and generosity. She likes to sing. Her life is fundamentally altered one day when she discovers a poetry class being taught by a local poet of some renown at the cultural center.

Mija is also something of a free spirit who likes to speak her mind. She makes quite an entrance at the poetry class, interrupting her teacher when the topic turns to pencil sharpeners, for instance.It is a month long course, and her task is to compose her own poem by the conclusion. Encouraged by the instructor’s rumination of what poetry constitutes at a time the form appears dead, Mija is now alight in her own private world as she ties to find new and innovative ways to see, visualize and appreciate the world around her. She even starts to attend local poetry readings in an effort to better understand the form and style.Her emerging sensibility and desire to open up her world artistically and intellectually is starkly thrown to the side when she is notified of a horrible personal connection to the girl who killed herself. The young woman maintained a private diary and revealed that Mija’s grandson and his five friends sexually assaulted the girl repeatedly that accounted for her private pain and anguish. The school has protected the boys’ identities.The other fathers of the boys involved have convened a meeting, and come up with a plan to provide financial assistance to the girl’s mother, a widowed farmer, to forestall any criminal investigation against the boys.Mija’s share, the equivalent of about $4,200, is the latest financial burden she must cope with at a time she anxiously awaits the medical results of the tests to determine source of her short term memory loss. Her grandson, like most kids his age, is caught in his own world of computer and video games and they have little means or willingness to communicate. The unfathomable nature of the boy’s personal transgression is so profound Mija is unable to directly confront him about it.Mija even tries in her own way to help atone for the boy’s grave mistake.

In one of the movie’s most devastating scenes, she attends a private church service for the girl and the grief and sorrow she feels is absolutely heartbreaking.Lee is not a sensationalist. He find feeling, expression and tenderness in what is left unsaid or unspoken, like the equally profound shot of three of the girl’s female classmates, both immaculate and unyielding in their stiff school uniforms that powerfully conveys the sorrow and sense of violation felt by all young women.As she undergoes her own unsentimental education and begins to move beyond her immediate surroundings or previously restricted life, Mija begins to draw on that deepening intelligence and confidence to remake the world according to her own needs. As such she finds the strength to stave off the bullying Kang.In the film’s most haunting scene, Mija is persuaded by the other fathers of the boys’ circle to appeal directly to the mother of the victim. The scene is a superbly staged act of in direction and subtlety, where the two women warily face one another and tacitly acknowledge the other’s pain and guilt, respectively.Lee’s script is modulated, surprising, even daring.

The story leaps out in subtle and profound ways and uses the framework of Mija’s new found inquisitive gaze to look out at the world and be overwhelmed by what she experiences. Lee achieves some powerful visual effects that utilize the water imagery, reflections, flowers and landscape in a fresco that by the end leaves you stunned and shaken.In “Poetry,” the graceful, beautifully moving lead performance by the great Yun Jung-hee, in her first screen appearance following a 16-year absence, transforms the material into high art.The film is alternately a concise and tender appreciation for the interior consciousness of women given a strong depth of characterization, a subtlety of expression and a tonally complex touch.

 Like “Secret Sunshine,” the story unfolds in a somewhat unremarkable South Korean suburb. From the grave note that opens the movie, seeing the body of a young girl floating down theHan River as a group of young boys play on the banks of the shore, “Poetry” is about a particularly dark kind of incursion.