Violence is always lurking around the corner in South Korean cinema. Park Chan-Wook’s 2003 international hit Old Boy sees a man on a grisly rampage after being mysteriously imprisoned in a hotel room for twenty years. The same year, Bong Joon-Ho’s haunting police procedural Memories of a Murder follows two detectives tireless pursuit of an elusive serial killer. Even Kim Ki-Duk’s Buddhist drama Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring ruminates on the role of violence in human nature. Inspired by a news story in which a schoolgirl was gang-raped by a group of her teenage classmates, Lee Chang-Dong’s take on this violent event in his new film, Poetry, comes at an angle that is significantly different from his peers.
Set in a small town in rural South Korea, Mija (Yun Jung-Hee) is a sixty-something year-old woman who raises her spoiled grandson on her own while works as a caretaker for a disabled elderly man. The body of a young girl was found in a nearby river and there were rumors around town that Mija’s grandson Wook and several of his friends had raped the girl before she jumped from a bridge. Meanwhile, Mija has been having difficulties recalling her vocabulary and was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease after a visit to her doctor. As the world around her unravels, this grandmother with a chic fashion sense decides to enroll in a poetry class—something she has longed to try but has set aside for years.
In Lee’s director statement, he poses the question: “What does it mean to be writing poetry when prospects of an ongoing future seem dismal?” Lee was a high school teacher and successful novelist before he switched to filmmaking in the late ‘90s. He sees how many of his compatriots have commented on how the form is dying yet he still sees people continue to read and write poetry. In Mija’s case, the issue of mortality is imminent, not only for the art form, but also for the wannabe poet herself. How does one see hope when there is seemingly none in sight? To Lee, poetry is about observation as much as it is about expression. It is only possible for someone to express genuinely when s/he can see the world honestly. After the film’s opening credit, Mija is seen in a hospital area as she watches the news of a middle-eastern woman weeping about her son’s death after an unknown violent event. As Mija exits the hospital, the audience can hear a mother wailing over her daughter’s body. Mija can be seen looking back several times at the scene while everyone else in the streets goes about their business without batting an eye. Lee takes a jab at people’s ambivalence with this sequence, which is presented in a very nonchalant manner despite the omnipotent presence of violence. Throughout the film, not a single act of violence is shown or confirmed on screen, hence rendering the audience to draw conclusions on their own.
When Mija first found out how Wook is possibly involved in the girl’s death from another parent, she was invited to have lunch with a group of fathers for the purpose of discussing how to settle the matter with money so their sons’ future will not be jeopardized. Shocked by the revelation, Mija remained quiet as the dads around the table speak of the rape without any compassion for the victim. Then all of a sudden, she walks out of the room to admire a flower on the other side of the window. When one of the parents asks her what she wrote in her poetry notepad, she answers, “Blood.” Mija reckons the flower is as red as blood. It was the beginning of a journey which Mija embarks as the film progresses— discovering the painstaking creative process at the same she has to choose between being in denial of the unquestionable deed of evil and facing the cold hard truth in spite of the consequences. Ironically, her dementia is not the biggest obstacle in her struggle to produce a poem. The courage to face the truth is what she is missing.
The success or failure of Poetry practically lies on the shoulder of Yun Jung-Hee — a star in her earlier years who came out of a 15-year retirement— because her character Mija occupies almost every scene. Mija is charming and graceful, and Yun plays her also with an occasional offbeat sensibility that keeps the film refreshing. As a director, Lee is known for his ability to command exquisite performances from his actresses—most notably with Jeon Do-Yeon winning the Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival in her role as a grieving mother in Secret Sunshine (2007). Whereas he has shown very disciplined control in jolting the audience with moments of melodrama in the earlier film, he has shown even more restraint in Poetry. Regardless of her circumstances, Mija seldom pours out her emotions. Lee refuses to dish out easy dramatic solutions and invites viewers to try to see things through Mija’s perspective. His non-manipulative stance makes room for viewers to empathize with Mija. And as Lee intended, empathy also plays a key role in the film’s cathartic ending.
Poetry will be playing at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston on 6/24 (7:00pm), 6/25 (7:00pm), 6/26 (5:00pm) and June 26 (7:30pm).