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Lee Chang-dong’s “Poetry” begins with the sights and sounds of a river flowing toward the camera. It’s the opening shot, one assumes, because it’s a nice poetic image that represents beauty, and the flow of life, and yadda yadda. Then one realizes the sound of the water is similar to the Korean word for poetry (shi), so it has that going for it, too. Then we see the body. This body—who she was and what happened to her—will drive much of the film, so the opening image does what the best poetry does: It also serves a purpose.
“Poetry” is a slowly devastating film. I went hoping for some uplift, as per the trailer, but the trailer lies. Trailers, particularly trailers for foreign films, tend to lie.
Mija (Yoon Jeong-hee, in her first role in nearly 20 years) is a 66-year-old woman caring for her worthless college-age grandson, Wook (Lee Da-wit). She also works part-time as a housemaid for an apparent stroke victim, and generally views life with a kind of childlike wonder. That won’t last.
As the film begins, she visits a doctor because her right arm feels prickly. “It’s like that thing passing though,” she says, and when the doctor asks, “What thing?,” she points to the light bulb. “Electricity?” the doctor asks. She nods, adding, with a small, apologetic smile, “I keep forgetting words.” For her arm, the doctor recommends some exercises. For her memory loss, about which he’s much more worried, he runs a series of tests. Halfway through the film she finds out she’s in the early stage of Alzheimer’s.
Is there a correlation between mental illness and poetry? Why did I think that was part of the point of the film? Because it’s not here. Mija takes a poetry class at the local cultural center, because, she says, “I do like flowers and I say odd things,” but she finds the lessons of the teacher hard to fathom. On the first day, he tells his students that the most important thing in life, in poetry, is seeing. He holds up an apple. He asks them what it is. He asks them how many times they’ve seen an apple. A thousand? Ten thousand? He shakes his head. “Up until now you’ve never seen an apple before. If you really see something you can feel it.” He talks about the joy of white paper, “a world before possibility,” and the joy he has sharpening pencils. He tells the class that for their month-long class, “Everyone has to write one poem.”
At home, while Wook and his five friends hang out in his room with the door locked, Mija studies an apple, ponders it, before deciding, “Apples are better for eating than looking at.” But she keeps at it. She sits outside her apartment with a notepad, looks up at the trees, feels the wind, sees the leaves shaking. When she expresses frustration in class, the teacher tells her to find beauty. “Every one of you carries poetry in your heart,” he says. This is said right before Mija attends an impromptu meeting with five other men, the fathers of Wook’s five friends, who confer on the best way to handle the problem. Oh? Doesn’t Mija know? That girl who killed herself by jumping off the bridge and drowning in the river? According to her diary, she’d been raped, repeatedly, by their six children. The school, of course, doesn’t want a scandal, and no charges have been filed yet so the police aren’t involved. So if they can raise the money to pay off the girl’s mother, a small farmer, their boys will be off the hook. They’ve offered ... 30 million won. Five million each. What does Mija think of that? But Mija has already wandered out of the restaurant, stricken with horror.
The horror stays. As Wook keeps shoveling food in his face, watching crap TV and listening to crap music, as the stroke victim finagles a way to make his baths more interesting, as the fathers finagle a way out of the trap their sons have set for themselves, she stays horrified. She attends a sparsely attended funeral service, a Christian service, for the girl, and steals away with a framed photo of the girl in her purse. The fathers send her to deal with the girl’s mother but instead she engages the woman, working in the fields, in conversation about a crushed apricot she found on the path. Initially we don’t know if she’s involved in subterfuge—a way to get close to the woman first—but after she turns and begins to walk away, smiling at this small connection she’s made, she suddenly remembers, and the look of horror, accompanied by panic, returns. Does she go back and confront the woman with their tawdry offer now? One can feel her dilemma. One senses how impossible her task is, and, back in the city, she lies to the fathers, telling them the mother simply wasn’t home.
But she confronts Wook. She confronts him about the girl, shakes him, asks him why he did it, puts the girl’s photo on their breakfast table. She studies the photo. She visits the school and presses her nose to the window of the science room where the rapes occurred. The girl is the crushed apricot on the path. She is the apple the teacher talked of at the beginning of class. People have seen the girl thousands of times but no one sees her. The boys saw her as one thing, the fathers as something else. The mother as something else? Mija studies her the way the teacher told the class to study the apple—not because it’s an assignment but because she can’t help it. She can’t get over the horror of it.
Is the poem she writes a great poem? It’s not bad. Is “Poetry” a great film? It’s a good film that never suggests sentimentality. It simply shows us what it needs to show us.
The IMDb.com synopsis reads as follows: “A sixty-something woman, faced with the discovery of a heinous family crime, finds strength and purpose when she enrolls in a poetry class.” But this is like the trailer: full of uplift (“strength”; “purpose”) that doesn’t exist. The synopsis should read: “A heinous family crime forces a sixty-something woman to write a poem.” That seems dismissive but it’s what happens. She sees the girl, she feels the girl, in a way others do not. Out of this, poetry arises.
March 22, 2011
© 2011 Erik Lundegaard