After a three year hiatus following his multiple award winning “Secret Sunshine”, master Korean film maker Lee Chang Dong returns with “Poetry”. Unsurprisingly, the film made a similar splash on the festival circuit, having been another Cannes triumph for the writer director, netting him the Best Screenplay award. Pretty much anything from Lee is cause for excitement, though adding to this is the fact that for the film he managed to lure famed 1960s and 70s actress Yoon Jeong Hee out of retirement to take on her first role for 15 years, playing a grandmother facing up to Alzheimer’s disease and a series of difficult moral choices. Although the film is very much her show, it also features a solid supporting cast including Ahn Nae Sang (“Fate”), veteran action star Kim Hee Ra, and real life poet Kim Yong Taek,
Yoon plays the elderly Mi Ja, who lives in a small rural town, working part time as a maid and carer for a stroke victim (Kim Hee Ra), while trying to raise her wayward teenage grandson Jong Wook (David Lee, also in “Paradise Murdered”). Trying to find a new way of looking at life, she enrols in a local poetry class, though her efforts to compose verse are hampered when she is diagnosed with the early stage of Alzheimer’s disease. Her life becomes even more difficult when she learns that Jong Wook is one of a group of six boys involved with the bullying and rape of a female classmate, which drove the poor girl to suicide. After the fathers of the other boys decide to try and pay off the girl’s mother in order to cover up the crime, she struggles both to come up with the money needed for her share and with the horrifying truth of her grandson’s actions.
Although the film may sound somewhat similar to Bong Joon Ho’s “Mother”, at least insofar as it features an elderly woman investigating a crime in a small rural town, “Poetry” is a very different beast indeed, being a deeply humanistic character study in Lee’s usual subtle, bittersweet style. Like “Secret Sunshine”, it sees Lee tackling themes of grief and how people deal with the unthinkable, as although the dead girl is not related to Mi Ja, she quickly comes to take on the heavy emotional burden of her suicide. To a large extent this is due to the harrowing fact that none of the other characters care in the least, with the boys going about their daily fun as usual, and Jong Wook himself showing little more than the odd flicker of discomfort when his grandmother finally attempts to confront him. A large part of the film revolves around the group of fathers and their efforts to compensate the girl’s mother, as well as keeping the press and police out of the affair, and their complete lack of compassion and the practical way they go about this gives the film a definite cynical edge.
As such, Mi Ja is the film’s only sympathetic character, and though her quest is essentially a personal one, she makes for a powerful and engaging outsider figure. Yoon Jeong Hee turns in an excellent central performance, with Lee having apparently written the role specifically for her, making Mi Ja by turns innocent and almost ethereal, yet still very much a strong, flawed yet responsible adult in her own right. As the film progresses, the possibility of the disease affecting her mind becomes more pressing, this does make for some compelling scenes, such as when she travels to the farm of the dead girl’s mother to apologise, only to become distracted by fallen fruit on the ground, which stirs her poetic inspirations. Although standing apart from the reflection of Korean society at the film’s dark heart, Mi Ja and her conscience give it a few rays of hope, or at least the possibility of still being able to find some beauty in life. A few moments of humour scattered throughout also help to keep things from getting too depressing, and the film is surprisingly funny, in a quirky though believable fashion.
Lee’s script is superb, and well deserving of its Cannes accolade. With the film being directed in naturalistic, though frequently visually arresting style, he again shows himself to be an expert storyteller, and one of the few writers or directors capable of combining narrative, character and theme into a coherent, engaging whole. Certainly, the film never neglects its central plot, and although it doesn’t play out in generic or expected fashion, there is considerable dramatic tension as to how the questions of money and responsibility will be resolved. As usual, Lee eschews typical melodrama or tugs at the heartstrings, though still manages to bring the film to a heartbreaking, if abstract conclusion.
With “Poetry”, Lee Chang Dong continues to show why he is considered by many to be one of the most accomplished film makers working in Korean cinema in modern times. Another masterpiece of humanistic character development and understated drama, laced with a bitter expose of the uncaring ills of society, the film is a rich, multilayered affair that impresses throughout.
Chang-dong Lee (director) / Chang-dong Lee (screenplay)
CAST: Jeong-hee Yoon … Mija
Nae-sang Ahn … Kibum’s father
Hira Kim … M. Kang
Da-wit Lee … Jongwook