POETRY (Shi) A
South Korea (139 mi) 2010 d: Lee Chang-dong
When was the last time an American film was written specifically for a sixty-something grandmother in mind for the lead? Everything seems driven towards the youth market, yet this film makes a mockery of any culture that idealizes youth and in the same breath excuses the violent consequences of reckless immaturity, where parents are constantly seen covering up and protecting the criminal behavior of their children, who are not nearly so innocent anymore. Written by the director with this specific actress in mind, Mija (Yun Jung-hee, who has acted in over 300 films in her career, coming out of retirement after sixteen years of living in Paris) is in nearly every scene, and while there are secondary players, the entire film revolves around her character. Not since Edward Yang’s YI YI (2000) have we seen a film like this, and much of this resembles Yang’s novelesque filmmaking style, shooting small, personalized moments of astonishing intimacy, where his attention to detail is immensely significant, capturing the wordless rhythm of ordinary life so perfectly, offering few close ups, instead shooting in long, medium range shots with Mija repeatedly seen cutting vegetables or preparing food for her grandson in the kitchen, staring out a bus window looking across a city river at the mountains off in the distance, sitting, waiting alone at a rural bus stop, arriving home to the quiet emptiness of her kitchen, or stopping to observe a flower or record what nature sounds like in her diary. Like his last film, the river offers a foreboding message, while as children are playing, one of them notices a young girl’s dead body floating downstream, a classmate of Mija’s aloof teenage grandson Wook (David Lee). Within moments, her grandson and five other boys are implicated in an egregious crime at school that ended in the girl’s suicide. The fathers of the boys meet with Mija to decide how best to handle the situation, deciding that their son’s futures and the reputation of the school would be better served if they kept the news quiet about what happened, and to make amends, offer a generous monetary package to the bereaved mother. Mija, obviously shaken, walks out and tries to focus on something else, anything else.
What makes this movie so special is not the story itself, which is announced in the opening minutes, but watching the way the consequences unfold, where the suspense isn’t necessarily what happens, but the way it happens, as much of it plays out like a silent film. Mija barely utters a word to Wook, who hasn’t an ounce of remorse, instead he’s an aimless, self-centered kid who’s used to being waited on hand and foot and acts like he hasn’t a care in the world, yet as his mother lives and works out of town, Mija looks after him while also working as an in-home care giver to an elderly man left partially paralyzed from a stroke, where it appears her life is spent cleaning up after the messes left behind by others. Almost on a whim, she decides to register in a poetry class, where her instructor suggests everyone has poetry in them, but that they need to find a way to liberate their awareness. Mija finds it especially difficult, constantly working, never feeling inspired, yet she jots down various notes in her diary when she finds an idle moment. She also attends poetry readings, where locals read their works in a coffee house atmosphere. While the poetry itself is not all that exceptional, the use of highly distinctive language in an otherwise near wordless movie is quite a contrast, as the director himself is accentuating a different level of thought throughout his own picture. There are several remarkable scenes that stand out, like Mija attending the Christian church service for the deceased girl, where the use of refracted images give the appearance of entering an alternate universe, yet the mirror images also offer a psychological impression that she’s seeing herself in the death of the young girl, as if her own future was destroyed in the process. This blending of the souls is a unique component of death, where the living identify with their own mortality. Mija is also diagnosed with early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, though she doesn’t exhibit any signs of forgetfulness yet. All the more reason why she is so shaken by this experience, as it feels like something she doesn’t ever want to forget.
Exhibiting cowardice to the core, the other fathers suggest Mija have a woman-to-woman talk with the bereaved mother in hopes she will accept their offer. What’s even more disturbing is the way they casually sit around and consume alcohol while they assign responsibility to someone else. It’s easy to see their son’s contemptible behavior in their own adult lives, as not once in this entire film do any of them ever speak to their sons or hold them accountable, a scathing indictment of male behavior in Korean society, not to mention the brazen cover up, and this from a writer/director who once served as the nation’s Minister of Culture. Mija’s visit takes on its own spiritual transcendence, but not as one would imagine, as this is another remarkable sequence, one filled with a quiet and mesmerizing poetry all its own, all the more captivating by revealing only the sparest essence of the moment, where the unseen, untapped power is the quiet dignity of the two women. How this matter evolves is almost entirely offscreen, alluded to, never for a moment seen, which is the director’s aesthetic. The film is unique in that words are never used to address the actual criminal acts, which are the story of the film, instead it silently makes references, offers signs, clues, glances, gestures, poetic reveries, and insightful silences, where a consummate actress like Yun Jung-hee gracefully carries this film on her shoulders. By the end the audience is immersed in a moving and powerful drama, where the poetry professor candidly reveals that poetry is a dying art, that few people read it or find it much use anymore, that the culture certainly doesn’t embrace it, making it nearly archaic in a morally bankrupt society that prefers to cover up and forget its heinous acts, sweeping them under the rug. But the director finds a way to poetically rhapsodize the unspoken truths in a YI YI-like remembrance, where this heartbreaking story finally finds release.