Directed by: Chang-dong Lee.
Written By: Chang-dong Lee.
Starring: Jeong-hee Yoon (Mija), Nae-sang Ahn (Kibum's father), Da-wit Lee (Jongwook), Hira Kim (M. Kang).
Lee Chang-dong is one of the best filmmakers in the world, who unfortunately outside of film festivals, isn’t very well known in North America. His last film, Secret Sunshine, was a masterpiece – one of the best films I have ever seen at the Toronto Film Festival – and yet for some reason it never got released over here – not even on DVD (Note: Since I wrote this review after TIFF last year, Secret Sunshine did get a small release late in 2010, so it should come to DVD soon). Luckily, his follow-up film – which is nearly as good – Poetry is getting a small release this year. Hopefully, this means that this master filmmaker can reach new audiences.
Poetry stars Jeong-hee Yoon, in one of the very best performances of the year, as Mija, a grandmother who is raising her grandson all by herself, following her daughter’s divorce and move to another town. She exists on government assistance and what little money she brings in from caring for an elderly stroke patient. Two things happen at almost the same time that change her life. One, she is diagnosed with early alzheimers. The second is that her grandson, Wook (Da-wit Lee) has admitted his role in gang raping a fellow student, repeatedly over the span of several months – something that only stopped when the girl threw herself off a bridge and killed herself. The school wants to keep things quiet, and suggests that the parents of the six boys involved offer the parents of the dead girl a cash settlement. Everyone quickly agrees – but Mija, has no idea where she is going to get the money from.
For most movies, this would be the setup of a melodrama – one with lots of screaming, dark secrets coming out, and confessions and acts of remorse. But Poetry almost completely avoids these clichés. Mija entirely internalizes everything – never brings up the rape to her grandson, who never mentions it to her either, and doesn’t tell anyone that she’s sick either. She continues to make Wook food, and even at times treats him like a baby (“What makes grandma happy?” “Food down Wookie’s throat”). The only thing she seems to feel passionate for is the poetry class she has recently starting attending. She wants to know how to write a poem and how to find “poetic inspiration”. It’s as if her impending loose of her mind – her language – has made her value it more – she wants to be able to express herself before it is too late.
Expressing herself is one thing Mija is incapable of doing – at least to other people. The various meetings she has with the fathers of the other boys – seemingly uncaring men who don’t talk about what their sons did, but rather how to get them off the hook – are chilling in their nonchalance – and Mija cannot take them. She doesn’t say anything, but often leaves them sitting in the restaurant and goes strolling around outside. She is brought back into the fold every time by the seemingly nicest of the fathers – but there is a patronizing way that he talks to her – as if she is a child. When it is suggested that she goes to see the girl’s mother herself – she makes the trip out to the farm alone on the bus, but when coming face to face with the woman, she cannot even bring herself to admit who she is, let alone talk to her about anything important. This is one of the best scenes in the movie – and speaks to Lee Chang-don’s brilliance and restraint. In most movies, this scene would be the centerpiece – an emotionally cathartic experience – but in this movie, while it remains the centerpiece, it’s for another reason – because of everything that goes unsaid. Mija cannot bring herself to tell her daughter that she is sick, or what her son has done. They share a chipper conversation on the phone, where the daughter seems completely oblivious to everything.
It’s only at the end of the film that Mija is finally able to express herself – the sorrow she feels, the guilt, the shame – and even then it is only through her poem that her teacher reads (and of course, Mija has simply left it there and left – having her thoughts verbalized still remains too painful for her). Mija feels more deeply than anyone else in the film – they are all concerned with themselves and how to get away with something – where her pain is all too real.
Poetry is a subtle film. It doesn’t take the path we expect it to take, but rather moves slowly into terrain that films very rarely even attempt to show. It is a masterful film – brilliant written and directed by Lee Chang-dong – and features one of the best performances you are likely to see by an actress. Chang-dong convinced Jeong-hoo Yoon to come out retirement to take this role – and the opportunity must have been too great for her to pass up. Rarely do films provide this type of role to anyone – and if you are a risk taking actor, it has to be satisfying to play. Lee Chang-dong is one of the best filmmakers in the world – and it’s about time that people in North American knew that.