The intensity of language and the beauty it conveys are visually interpreted in Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry, a film which manages to fashion the vividly imaginative nature of a poem, against a narrative saturated with themes of human misery.
Mija (Yun Jeong-hie) is an elderly lady with an infectiously joyful energy which negates the climate of sorrow that currently dictates her life. She lives in a South Korean city where she cares for a disabled older man in order to cobble together enough money to sustain herself and her dim-witted grandson (who she is the sole guardian of). Her life is one of infrequent moments of cheerfulness interspersed with countless incidents of immense dejection and feelings of insignificance.
Things don’t look like improving for Mija when she’s diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, condemning her to an uncontrollable downward spiral into dementia. In an attempt to discover a new language in which to communicate her complex range of emotions, she takes up a poetry class at the local arts college. The students are assigned the relatively simple task of creating one poem by the end of the course, but how can Mija possible create a composition of prose to express the beauty which quietly resides in the world when her vocabulary is slowly diminishing? And with the revelation that her grandson is implicated in the rape and death of a young girl, she finds herself further impeded by yet another example of the crumbling level of morality and escalating despair which now surrounds her life…
Lee’s sobering vision of an emotionally paralyzed woman coming to terms with her degenerative condition through a dying art form is as graceful and expressive as the most emotive of Sonnets. Eloquently achieved through a use of tranquil pacing and a heightened artistic approach to filming, Poetry successfully captures the emotional numbness which can often accompany such devastating events, whilst simultaneously illuminating the subtle strokes of beauty which often present themselves at these moments of magnified mortality.
The breathtaking performance of Yun Jeong-hie is what ultimately transforms Poetry from a sombre tragedy (albeit a visually stimulating one) into an immersive character drama. Returning from a sixteen year retirement, her performance is tremendous – perfectly conveying her character’s obsequious demeanour and naive sensibilities with a simple, nuanced stare. Whether it be the degrading chores she must perform for her boss or the uncomfortable meetings she must attend in regard to her grandson’s horrifying transgression, Jeong-hie seems to handle these uncomfortable situations with a majestic level of professionalism. With little action and a sparing use of dialogue, Jeong-hie has little chance to articulate the turbulent range of emotions her character is going through. When given an opportunity to express herself, her lilting mannerisms convey such a subtle blend of deep emotions it’s difficult not to become transfixed by her delicate and innocent manifestation of the character. Whilst Mija’s recently diagnosed illness is never really addressed, other than a few sporadic scenes of forgetfulness, Yun Jeong-hie always seems to be carrying a heavy burden behind her cheerful exterior. It culminates in an assured performance which transforms the film’s central protagonist into a well rounded and extremely impassioned individual whose harrowing situation becomes increasingly upsetting to witness.
Much like Bong Joon-ho’ s hugely successful Mother (2010), Poetry is yet another South Korean film carried by an elderly female lead dealing with the destructive ripples which emanate from a troubled dependant. For two such films to emerge within such a short space of time, and originate from the same country, it would be difficult not to draw comparisons. Poetry deals with its serious subject matter with a much more natural approach, never needing to lapse into melodrama or extreme symbolism. The story is allowed to unfold at its own steady pace without falling into monotony, instead creating a genuine flow of events which unravel in a conventional linear fashion that is ultimately fitting with Mija’s slow decline into dementia.
Like any poem of literary importance, Poetry demands that you read between the lines, listen to what’s not said and study it meticulously to grasp its hidden meaning. With a dark vein of immoral behaviour brewing beneath its pleasant exterior, the spiritual messages of peace and love often associated with poetry are nowhere to be found. It’s this calm and calculated delivery that may alienate many viewers. A distinct lack of tension or any signs of moral retribution create a particularly unsatisfying conclusion to the film’s previous events, which required such devout patience. Yet, perhaps, Mija’s reluctance to accept the monstrous crime her grandson committed is an attempt to avoid filling her last remaining memories with such images of horror and disappointment? This is just one of many loose ends no doubt implemented to make Poetry a more philosophical experience which leaves a lasting impression.
A strong sense of compassion for Mija’s situation is also required to make the most of the film. An inability to sympathise with her situation or to become infuriated by her naivety will unfortunately result in a long two hours of action-less events portrayed at a noticeably leisurely tempo. Indeed, this is a film which asks few questions and answers even less, instead relying on the events to slowly build to their climax.
Poetry is a superbly well-crafted story that flows as elegantly as its namesake. Its underlying beauty, whilst only revealing itself after some deep searching, is as rewarding an experience as you could expect from such dark subject material, but persevere with Poetry and you’ll discover an intensely moving film about inexorable optimism in the face of uncompromising negativity and despair.