When Poetry director and screenwriter Lee Chang-Dong won the Best Screenplay award at the 2010 Cannes International Film Festival, I was extremely pleased. Even though the film failed to win the Palme d’Or , a much more prestigious award which ultimately went to Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010, review here), it felt entirely appropriate that the award he did win specifically celebrated writing and the writing process. Before becoming a filmmaker at the age of 40, Lee was a successful novelist in his native South Korea, then transitioned into screenwriting and directing. From his debut film, Green Fish (1997), to his latest and sixth film, Poetry, Lee has proven himself to be one of the most promising auteurs out of the Asian region in a long time. For Westerners whose expectations for Korean cinema include the dark, violent fantasies of directors such as Park Chan-Wook (Oldboy, 2003) and Kim Ji-Wook (A Tale of Two Sisters, 2003), Lee may seem like a bit of an anomaly. Neither, however, is Lee an arthouse director like another fellow countryman of his, Kim Ki-Duk (3-Iron, 2004). Lee’s narratives are much more straightforward (even his achronologically-staged 1999 film Peppermint Candy) , but at the same time very literary in both form and aesthetics.
*Take note that there are some minor spoilers below*
Poetry is about the importance of creativity to the individual, especially in one’s darkest hours. Mijia (veteran actor Yun Jung-Hee), an elderly woman, is diagnosed with symptoms of early-onset Alzheimer’s, loss of language. This encourages her to take a poetry class, hoping that just being around poems will keep her mind engaged so further symptoms can be staved off. During the class, she finds herself wrapped up in the sole class assignment: to compose a single poem. However, while the goal of the assignment is clear, the steps to reach that goal are not. Poetry, Mijia learns, is an expression of beauty, but where can that beauty be found and how exactly can it be expressed? Her creative struggles become further complicated by the accusation of her grandson Wook (Lee David) in a particularly grim crime.
On paper, Poetry appears to be a melodrama and it certainly has moments of tragedy. However, even the most tense moments are played off with great subtlety, a marked change from, for example, the made-for-tears moments of his breakout film in the West, Oasis (2002, discussion here). The versatility of his use of heightened and subtle drama is no doubt the result of Lee’s experience as a novelist (though admittedly, I’ve never read any of his work) as well as a careful observant eye focused on human nature. In one such exemplary scene, Mijia must try to apologize to the mother of the girl involved in the crime that Wook is accused of. The tension in this scene is incredible: the mother doesn’t know who Mijia is yet and just assumes she is a kind passerby. Mijia herself knows the truth of the situation, but walks away after a polite conversation, afraid to confront the situation. The tension is then further ramped up in a later scene when the two meet after the mother has already learned the truth. The interaction, including the body language, between the two characters is fantastic and show both Lee’s writing and his keen acuity as a filmmaker, as exemplified by the dramatic tension created without the use (or overuse, as it were) of music, complicated framing, or melodramatic direction.
Of course, credit Yun Jung-Hee herself for her remarkable performance as Mijia. Brought out of retirement, Yun was the specific actor that Lee had in mind when writing the screenplay and it shows since she fits the role perfectly. In fact, I felt that part of the beauty of how her character was written and played is that, even though very little is presented about Mijia’s past, I could imagine she had the sort of background that many of her generation have: never had career-oriented work, married and had children young, and sacrificed her own happiness to raise to her family. In a way, you feel that one dismissive comment that she makes to people about why she’s taking the poetry class, “I do like flowers and say odd things” is almost a defense mechanism. This is possibly the only time in her life in which she’s indulged herself for her own sake. Yun plays Mijia with such incredible brevity that she feels like a real character; she brought to mind many of my own aunties around her age.
Comparisons have been made between Poetry and aspects of the recently released Mother (2009), a film directed by Lee’s fellow countryman Bong Joon-Ho. Both explore the struggles and sacrifice of motherhood and matriarchy in an otherwise male-dominated society and the desperation and length to which their matriarch s are willing to save their offspring. However, the two paths diverge greatly in their attempts at exoneration. While Mother‘s protagonist finds herself falling deeper into the rabbit hole, Poetry‘s Mijia is fighting inexorably to reach the light.