Finding beauty hidden in pain
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, March 18, 2011
You would expect a film called “Poetry” to be a little poetic. But from a cinematic standpoint, what does that mean? If you’re anything like Mija (Yun Jung-hee), the sweet Korean grandmother who is at the center of this powerful — and, yes, poetic — Korean drama, you might assume that means lots of shots of natural beauty.
You would be mistaken.
For Mija, a 66-year-old who has just enrolled in her first poetry-writing workshop at the local community center, nature is where one looks for poetic inspiration. But there’s a darker kind of beauty running through the film by writer-director Lee Chang-dong. The film’s most moving scenes, in a film with many moving scenes, are shot like reality-TV confessionals. They’re personal stories told by Mija and her fellow students, who face the camera head-on while reminiscing about love, loss and longing.
The technique isn’t as cheesy as it sounds. Scattered throughout the film, these mini-monologues — presumably used by Mija’s poetry teacher (Kim Yong-taek) as an exercise to help his students get in touch with their feelings — feel unscripted. There’s a sense of voyeurism, as if we’re eavesdropping on something we shouldn’t hear.
For Mija, participation in the class brings her some angst. Having received a diagnosis of early-stage Alzheimer’s, she’s beginning to forget the names of things — “electricity,” for example, and “bus terminal” — so writing presents its own special challenges, above and beyond the literary ones.
Initially for Mija, poetry is a form of escapism. In her private life, she is grappling with the discovery of an act of shocking violence involving her teenage grandson Wook (Lee David). The film opens with a shot of a dead girl (Han Su-young) floating down the river, and it takes a while before the significance of that image — and its impact on Mija’s life — is revealed.
Along with Wook, several of his schoolboy pals have been implicated in a scandal connected to the girl, whose death turns out to have been a suicide. In an effort to keep the matter out of the press and away from the police, the parents of the other boys have come up with a plan to pay the girl’s mother (Park Myung-shin) hush money. It’s money Mija doesn’t have.
There is, however, the wealthy old man (Kim Hi-ra) for whom Mija works as a maid. Despite being paralyzed from a stroke, he has been pressuring Mija to have sex with him. How she negotiates the compromises and little capitulations of her life is, in a word, heartbreaking.
But it is through poetry that Mija discovers not comfort but, in the end, a kind of brilliant clarity about the beauty, and the possibility of transformation, that lies inside all suffering.
One day, while walking in the countryside with the notebook that she has taken to carrying with her everywhere, Mija stumbles on a piece of fruit that has fallen from a tree. The lines she jots down are nothing more than a poetic scrap, but it’s one fraught with the notion of sweetness in self-sacrifice:
“The apricot throws itself to the ground. / It is crushed and trampled for its next life.”
Contains disturbing thematic material, a shot of a dead body and brief obscenity. In Korean with English subtitles.