Lee Chang-dong’s films are often lyrical and thematic in their nature. His films are often immersed in the realities of life wrapped around in a very single theme. His movies often become critically acclaimed; “SecretSunshine” won numerous including film awards including best actress and became the first Korean film selected to be released by Criterion. “Oasis” and “Peppermint Candy” also received numerous accolades. Lee’s films are the kind that sticks to you even after the end credits. 2010’s “Poetry” is no different that it carries Lee’s usual style of lyrical storytelling that had been inspired by a real incident in Korea when a young girl had been repeatedly raped by 6 young boys. Lee’s intentions with this film is not to bring forth the details of that real tragic incident, but rather to present something about the beauty of life and the harsh realities in the hearts of men.
The film tells the story of a suburban woman in her mid-60’s, Yang Mija (Yoon Jeong-Hee) who collects social security and works part-time as a maid while helping to raise her grandchild, Jang-Wook (Lee David). Having been diagnosed with the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, she thinks that taking a poetry class may help sharpen her memory. Mija begins to appreciate the wonders of the world, and as she sees the simplistic beauty behind nature. But one day, a girl’s suicide initiates a turn of events that will change her life forever as she also begins to realize the harsh realities hidden within the hearts of men.
Lee’s film were among the ones that really inspired me to follow the recent Korean “new wave” of films in America along with films by Kim Ki-Duk, Kim Ji-Woon and Park Chan-Wook. He may be one of those director-writers that I have grown to anticipate their next film. Why? His films always have a lot to say, it deals with certain social commentaries and his films feel quite authentic. In “Poetry”, Lee brings his viewers into the life of one aging woman; someone who can be said to deserve no such heart-breaking challenges, and yet life seems to deal an individual a card for seemingly no reason at all.
“Poetry” is about looking at the good things in life; just how something so simple can have a story and things are not always what they seem to be at first look. To express such a concept, Lee’s screenplay brings forth a character that has the ability to see and perhaps deal with such things. Mija is a woman who appears to be at peace, and yet her surroundings threaten to her state of mind. Having Alzheimer’s disease is no walk in the park, the direction goes in several different ways to create empathy as one is privy to the emotions and the denial of such emotions. Mija tries to look for some beauty in life, but due to what she is going through, the words elude her. Lee Chang-dong’s writing was quick to emphasize such things, the injustices and the tragedy that lay around such a beautiful yet cruel world.
I suppose Lee wanted to create a metaphor or a state of symbolism as Maji wanders she sees the beauty of nature as if it hides the harsh cruelties made by man. I am not sure, there is an almost strong message about fundamentalism around here, but Lee does not dawdle a little too much on it. The film is a little slow in pace, but the images seen in the film represents something that is about life. The hoola-hoop, the badminton, the elderly guy, the apricot, music, disease and the red flowers, all serve to say something about its story. Man is responsible for what he had wrought, though given the beauty of such creation, man creates his world, and man must attempt to make the best of what he lives. Almost as if Lee is trying to communicate just how our own choices create our world and how it affects those around us. I don’t want to ramble on about the film’s themes, but once the viewer learns to absorb the visuals and its simplistic interactions, Lee’s narrative strikes home with a lot of power.
Lee always seems to know how to select his performers and he had chosen really well with Yoon Jeong-Hee. She has been voted as the top actress in the history of Korean cinema, and in this film, you could just feel and see why this was so. Even when her Mija character says nothing, you feel the silent confusion, denial and pain as she goes about her daily routine. This actress was incredible in shaping the emotional turmoil within her character, that it became so easy to empathize with what she was feeling. The film also has quite a good collection of a supporting cast, and among them, Kim Hye-jung stood apart as the sickly elderly man.
Lee’s camerawork was simple as with his other films, and yet it all feels to express a form of poetry by itself. The dialogue also demands a lot of things to read into, rather than just watch. From the cinematography, to its subtle symbolism, “Poetry” is the kind of film whose title says a lot. As with most things about life, everything and everyone has a story or even a song. The film has won the award for best screenplay in the 2010 Cannes film festival and watching it once again, I can truly say that it deserved such accolade. It also feels shorter than 139 minutes despite its slow-moving screenplay.
There is a lack of sentimentality here that proved delightful. It wisely sidesteps the easy way to gain dramatic power by devolving into a terminally-ill drama about a woman trying to bond with generational differences. “Poetry” is absorbing, powerful and tragic, as the power of art can indeed be used to bear witness to the sublime beauty that is life and the violent realities that lie hidden in the hearts of men. It feels very authentic and heart-breaking without resorting to a sappy screenplay that it deserves my highestrecommendation. [5 Out of 5 Stars]