In recent years, there have been few national cinemas as intriguing and accomplished as South Korean cinema.
Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho, the directors of Oldboy and The Host, are among the world’s finest directors of genre film. While Lee Chang-dong isn’t a genre filmmaker and is not quite the same caliber a director as his South Korean brethren, his latest film, Poetry is the kind of complex, quiet character study that you won’t find in North America.
Mija (Yun Jeong-hie) is an elderly woman who works part-time as a maid for an old man debilitated from a stroke. She also takes care of her grandson, Jongwook, a hapless and dour teenager who lethargically sits around their cramped apartment watching television game shows or chatting with his worthless friends. Mija is forgetting things, mostly words and turns of phrase. Her doctor is concerned and thinks it might be Alzheimer’s. Mija doesn’t give it much thought.
On her way home from the doctor, she sees a poster advertising a community poetry class. Mija’s daughter has always thought Mija had a poet’s vein, admiring beauty and saying odd things. Because of this, Mija enrolls in the class in an attempt to write just one poem before it finishes. She spends time admiring trees and apples, and taking notes of beautiful things in her little notebook.
However, things get complicated when Jongwook is implicated along with his five friends in the rape of a teenage girl who recently committed suicide. The parents of the boys are planning an out of court settlement with the mother of the girl, but Mija doesn’t have the money to afford the settlement. Watching Mija deal with these various difficulties is the main dramatic thrust of Poetry, but merely figuring out her character is its greatest pleasure.
Poetry is an exploration of both the beautiful and nasty things of life.
Mija has the mind of an artist. She is perceptive and sees meaning in everything. She goes to poetry readings and is deeply moved by the readers’ personal verses. When a man makes some dirty jokes in a preamble to his poem, she is profoundly disturbed by his vulgarity, thinking it mocks the beauty of poetry. Her potential Alzheimer’s doesn’t seem to get her down. Whether this is delusion or optimism is left to the viewer to decide. Yun Jeong-hie’s performance is simply wonderful.
Poetry’s exploration of human nastiness isn’t explicit like Oldboy or Memories of Murder, but it doesn’t shy away from unpleasant situations either. A scene where the fathers of the boys who committed the rape cordially discuss the settlement over beer and food at a restaurant is quietly disturbing. Here are normal people discussing atrocious things like it is any other order of business needing to be sorted out.
This is a languid and quiet film. It takes its precious time and lacks any kind of melodrama. I couldn’t notice a musical score to help cue the emotions. Its characters are complex and hard to figure out. Lee doesn’t spell out their emotions for you. He trusts you to figure them out for yourself. The cinematography is still and there is a lack of cuts, allowing your eyes to creep over all the spaces of the frame and ponder what is happening. More importantly, it allows you to contemplate its characters and watch their faces, specifically Mija’s.
In East Asian cinema, I’ve noticed that the frames are always cluttered but there is an order and eloquence to them lacking in Western films that try to approximate the lived-in look of rooms. A shot of Mija’s kitchen is filled to the edges of the frame with utensils, pictures, cards and notes pinned about, but none of these items feel like props. In American films, the items always feel added as a way to create atmosphere. Here, they are simply parts of the frame. It’s like you are peering into an actual room. The control of the camera and the restraint allow even the simple squalor to be beautiful.
However, Poetry is not perfect. For a film about poetry, Lee’s film is a little too controlled. There seems little spontaneity in the film. Even bursts of vibrancy are calculated. The ending is unclear. Its lack of resolution seems confused, not ambitious. The plot and even the beautiful images don’t seem to warrant 139 minutes.
Poetry is another signal that South Korea is home to the most interesting foreign films being made today. Its quiet drama and performances will reward the patient viewer. You will come away from it wanting to explore more of the Korean New Wave and the wonderful stories being told in this fascinating East Asian country.
[box type=”info”]Poetry is currently playing at the Broadway Theatre.[/box]