Directed By Lee Chang-Dong
As the narrative unfolds Poetry, the latest from South Korean auteur Lee Chang-Dong, it’s hard not to think of Mr. Lee’s contemporary from his native country, Bong Joon-Ho and his film mother. Both films focus on maternal parents (though Mija in Poetry is a grandmother) who are forced to take care of indolent sons, and cover their tracks in terrible crimes. However, while Mr. Bong, adapting from Hitchcock and other sources, spins his camera like a maestro into a wildly comic tale, Mr. Lee is a reserved storyteller, trying to reach something that the title aspires to: poetic cinema.
And Poetry, in terms of the thematic details and stylistic approach, is very much its own film, and the narrative connections hardly register as this meandering, sometimes extremely poignant, story develops. Mija here is played by Yoon Jeong-hee with a delicate balance of sincerity and fear, as her life begins to crumble, and she searches for answers for truth. Early in the film, Mija learns she has Alzheimer’s, but decides to ignore the facts as she has no one to turn to (and the film only occasionally brings this up, one of its faults). Instead, she focuses on taking a beginning poetry class, hoping to be inspired to write just a single poem. However, when she is forced to collude to cover up a crime of her son, things take an interesting turn.
When Mr. Lee focuses on the story following Mija’s dealings with these men, he hits on a number of very interesting ideas about both gender issues and class relations through his protagonist. With a reserved camera that prefers a still shot than constant motion, he refuses to let neither him nor Mija judge, only simply staring back in confusion. The poetry scenes, however, are simply not as compelling to watch, and Mija’s search for beauty comes off, as, unfortunately boring. I don’t think Mr. Lee planned it this way, and you can tell his heart is in that part more, as it’s the more transcendental part of the narrative. Yet the material, and Mija herself, aren’t as compelling to watch.
As the narrative do collide toward the end of the film, things pick up, not in speed or tempo, but it Poetry’s moving beauty. Mr. Lee is a filmmaker who catches little details within his shots, more fascinated with the mundane than the grandiose. And so is Mija when search for her poetry. She cannot understand the cruelty and passivity around her, and is searching for something to put all the pieces together. During her first lesson, her instructor tells her that “poetry is about a search for beauty.” When Mija’s poem is revealed at the end, its beautiful, but its also devastating, and leaves us curious to how a film that began with a morose shot of death, can end with a stunning affirmation of life.