Yun Jung-hee finds the words in Lee Chang-dong's ‘Poetry.’

The Power of ‘Poetry’

Adam Hartzell April 7, 2011

Poetry requires patience, a commitment of attention to the particular placement of words on the page. It’s no surprise that South Korean director Lee Chang-dong’s fifth feature film, which is named Poetry, rewards the focused viewer.

Starting Friday at Landmark’s Opera Plaza in San Francisco, the Shattuck in Berkeley and the Smith Rafael in San Rafael, Poetry opens by gradually revealing a rippling river, as if director Lee wants to put us in a contemplative mood, calming our otherwise rushing modern minds, in order to enhance all our senses for what we are about to witness. Yet the meditative flow of the river is disrupted by the presence of a dead adolescent girl floating within this otherwise peaceful body of water. Her death will be one of the channels moving through the plot. The other story current involves the lead character in the film, sexagenarian Mija's decision to take up poetry, having never written a poem in her life.

Although Mija has long held this desire to write poetry, she is likely finally motivated to take a class because of her recent struggles in remembering basic nouns and verbs, one of the signs that she is experiencing the early symptoms of Alzheimer's. Or perhaps, as Mija herself says, “To love poetry is to seek beauty.” She may be looking for greater joy in her life in Goyang City, where she has been taking care of her middle-school-aged grandson while her daughter tries to restart her life post-divorce in Busan.

Or as VCinema's Jon Jung said to me after a screening, Mija, may be seeking truth through poetry, hoping it will set her free. Early in the film Mija speaks of physical pain, as if the responsibility of caring for her grandchild, Wook (Lee David), who is introduced to us balled-up in a fetal position, is a physical burden.

Outcasts in South Korean society are common in Lee’s work; he often forces us to face how unkind we can be to our fellow humans. Lee has always been interested in those whose square selves do not fit into the round holes of mainstream constructions, from the sensitive young man returning home after military service unable to find a place in a modernizing society in Lee's debut, Green Fish, to the wounded, anti-Forrest-Gump figure having history thrust upon him in Peppermint Candy to the public disgust displayed toward the romantic coupling of a physically-disabled woman and a developmentally-disabled man in Oasis to the mother who experiences a grief no religion could alleviate after the loss of her child in Secret Sunshine to this elderly woman of Poetry, whose social awkwardness results in many ignoring her.

Lee’s script deservingly won Best Screenplay in Cannes in 2010. A novelist, he offers nuance in plot and character. (Though the real-life poet associated with the teacher character in this film is Kim Yong-taek, who keeps his real name.) Great detail is paid to the decision points of Mija, but other characters, such as the more-than-meets-the-eye cop who attends a poetry reading for what appears to be greater interest in stand-up comedy than poetry, are also intriguing.

The presence of Yun Jung-hee underscores how South Korean cinema is on a roll in providing amazing roles for its elder stateswoman, noted in more detail in my review of Im Sang-soo's The Housemaid on SF360. Yun, out of acting for 15 years, was courted by Lee before he'd even finished the script. As Shin Min-kyoung notes in the May-June 2010 issue of Korean Cinema Today, Yun is herself deeply connected to poetry circles in South Korea, having had a long acquaintance with poet Seo Jeong-ju, reading one of his poems at an event celebrating Seo's golden jubilee. (She was accompanied on the keys by her husband, Paik Kun-woo, a famous pianist in South Korea.) Yun flows wonderfully back into thespian form as Mija, providing perhaps her career-defining performance.

Though that may be an overstatement: In the 1960's, often called the Golden Age of South Korean Cinema, Yun was considered part of the troika of leading actresses, alongside Moon Hee and Nam Jeong-im. Yun worked with such great South Korean directors of the 1960s as Yoo Hyun-mok, Shin Sang-ok and Lee Man-hee. She is the lead in one of my favorite South Korean films from that time, Kim Soo-yong's Mist from 1967. So if not her greatest performance, this is sure to be seen as one of her best; she is an absolute pleasure to watch even in the more heart-wrenching scenes where, in the face of hard reality, she pulls back in fear.

Both Director Lee and actress Yun's combined talents make Poetry a film you will likely want to watch more than once. If not in the theater, then in your head, revisiting the ascendant mix of images, words and gestures this film provides.