Directed by: Lee Chang-dong
Written by: Lee Chang-dong (screenplay)
Starring: Yun Jeong-hie, Ahn Nae-song, Lee Da-wit, and Hira Kim
What good are our memories to us if one day they can evaporate like river water? What good is a younger generation that grows increasingly dehumanized?
The initial shots of Poetry set up the movie to answer these questions. We watch as a couple of young children stand by the river, and then we follow what we eventually pick out as the body of a young girl float up to them. For the rest of the movie, that murder will reverberate through the life of Mija (Yun Jeong-hie) in a blur.
Mija is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Her grandson is part of the group that raped and killed that unfortunate girl on the river. This is the premise of a melodrama, something that director Lee Chang-dong indulges in but doesn’t exploit. Poetry is a movie of deep sadness, but in that sadness a passion for life is also born.
Before she discovers the horror of her grandson’s deeds, Mija enrolls in a poetry class. The instructor gives the class a deadline to complete one full poem before the class ends. For her, though, that deadline is to complete one before her memory and capacity for describing the beauty and sadness of the world is also gone.
Completing that poem is not the movie’s primary task, but it weaves in and out of all the major events and experiences. Chang-dong also does this with the camera. Poetry isn’t about beauty, but at times it has images that are striking. Many of them wouldn’t be gorgeous without context, but when you know the story, Mija’s often crumbling face is haunting.
Yun Jeong-hie gives exactly the kind of performance that is ignored by Oscar voters in the lead role. She is riveting, but not over-indulgent. Her character is a proud woman in an increasingly desperate situation; no money to pay off the victim’s mother, no way to communicate her rage with her grandson.
Part of what makes Poetry work so well is how the director and the lead actress compliment each other by taking different approaches. There was great potential to play this character larger than life, but that would’ve softened the movie’s devestating impact. Instead, the mood could be described as despair that is glazed over. Mija dresses beautifully, but works as a maid for a raunchy old handicapped man. Her anti-social grandson commits a terrible act under her watch, but she doesn’t always remember the specifics.
There is a tendency in many American reviews of foreign films to compare them to Hollywood. Poetry does not warrant or deserve such comparisons, as much of what Chang-dong does here is an intentional detour from familiarity. Following Mija creates a different kind of suspense, because her confrontations with people largely hinge on her ability to remember.
In one of the more poignant moments, she is tasked by the other boys’ fathers with talking to the murdered girl’s mother “to reason with her” because she is also a woman. As she wanders down a path and eventually finds the woman picking oranges for harvest, the two discuss the fruit because Mija has forgotten where she is. She turns to leave, and suddenly remembers. Her pride leads her to keep walking.
Poetry is a movie about an older generation’s pride dealing with a younger one’s apathy. In many American films, it is a younger generation dealing with the mishaps of the old (the most relevant example I can think of is The Savages). By forcing an ailing generation to look at the disparity of the future, the movie paints a different picture, one that doesn’t quite give up hope but presents no answer.