It's clear that I'm a sucker for South Korean crime films with mothers as the protagonists, or in this case a grandmother. Mija Yang (Yung Jeong-hie) is a sixty-something widow, getting by on checks from the government and a part-time job as a cleaning lady. She shares a small apartment with her sixteen-year-old grandson Wook (Lee David), left behind by a divorced daughter who works in another town. Mija is pleasant, cheerful, and perhaps a little eccentric. We first see her visiting the hospital, exhibiting a habitual forgetfulness that may be a symptom of something more serious, her doctor warns. On her way out, she sees a grief-stricken woman in the parking lot, inconsolable over the death of her teenage daughter - who we later learn was driven to suicide.
These events are the beginning of a string of misfortunes for Mija, and a corresponding internal struggle to sort out her complicated feelings and decide how best to respond to a bad situation. She does so slowly and quietly, never resorting to any extreme measures. This is not a crime thriller, like Bong Joon-ho's "Mother," a film that shares similar themes, but approaches them in an entirely different way. In "Poetry," there's never any question as to who was responsible for the girl's death or why it happened. The film is more concerned with the impact of the tragedy on Mija's relationships and worldview. And then there's the poetry. Near the beginning of the film, Mija impulsively joins a poetry writing class at the local community cultural center. As her fortunes worsen, poetry becomes an important outlet for her. Through the class she receives the encouragement to closely observe the world around her, take notes, and be honest in her reactions. She leans not only to "seek beauty," but also to gain the conviction to express it.
And this isn't as easy as it sounds. Director Lee Chang-dong does a fantastic job of slowly revealing the lonely inner world of his seemingly happy heroine. After various encounters and exchanges, viewers will slowly come to realize that almost everyone else in the movie habitually ignores or patronizes Mija. In multiple scenes, she holds conversations with people who refuse to look at her directly. The grandson does his best to ignore her entirely. Important decisions are made for Mija, nominally in her presence, but without her input or acknowledgement. She is casually lied to, tricked, coerced, and dismissed without hesitation. People politely remark that she is charming and well dressed, but then wonder if she's gone senile once she's out of earshot. Sadly, the only other character in the film who really interacts with her on even terms is the elderly invalid (Hira Kim) she helps to care for. So is there a point to her trying to say anything, if no one is listening?
The title "Poetry" might trouble some viewers, conjuring visions of esoteric imagery and pedantic dialogue, but the film's ambitions are fairly modest when it comes to actual verse. Poetry is treated as an approach to life, a state of mind as much as the plain text on the page. Through Mija's attempts to write, the film argues for the value of poetry to the individual, rather than trying to edify or instruct the audience on the dry particulars of the literature. More importantly, the poetry never trumps the film. Mija drops in on a few poetry readings for inspiration, and her teacher is allowed his monologues on truth and beauty, but these interludes always remain in the service of the larger story and its characters. Mija is not saved or redeemed by poetry, as she might have been in a Hollywood film. Poetry can broaden her worldview and clarify her choices, but she still has to make the hard decisions by herself.
I appreciate "Poetry" for exploring potentially sensationalist subjects with rare restraint, for its meditative mood and deliberate pacing. The visuals are never anything but lovely and tranquil. Yung Jeong-hie's performance as Mija has such empathy and sensitivity, you won't be able to take your eyes off her. I also quite liked Kim Yong-tak, who keeps his own name to play Mija's poetry teacher. But what really struck me about the film was its message. I was glad to see an undercurrent of social commentary running throughout the story. At first I wondered if the the callousness of the reactions to the girl's death was simply a cultural difference, but it soon became apparent that she was another poor soul being ignored and forgotten for the convenience of others. And Mija's choice to sympathize with the victim, in spite of all the trouble it brings, was one of the most touching things I've seen in a film in a long time.