Foreign Objects: Poetry (South Korea)

By  · Published on March 19th, 2011

Note: As Rob Hunter has been busy covering SXSW and watching Love Exposure on repeat, Landon Palmer is trying his best to fill his globe-trotting cinematic shoes. Rob will be back next week with another object from a foreign land.

To make the observation that some really great films have been coming from South Korea in the last few years is to say nothing new. To say that there have been a lot of violent revenge movies from that country is also to say nothing new. But between Lee Chang-dong’s wonderful Poetry and Bong Joon-ho’s equally great Mother from last year, another revisited theme has emerged in South Korean exports: maternal figures that must care for and live with children who may or may not have committed a heinous crime to a young woman.

In the case of Poetry, we have an elderly woman, Mija (Yun Jeong-hie) taking care of her spoiled grandson, Jongwook (Lee Da-wit), who is being implicated along with a group of boys in having a hand in the death of a young girl at their school (I’ll spare you the details so that you may experience the revelations as freshly as I did ). Poetry is tonally and aesthetically very different from Mother, functioning more as a character piece rather than focusing on mysteries behind the crime (there is far less ambiguity in this case). But it is a testament to the filmmaking behind Poetry, Mother, and the new wave of South Korean cinema at large that two films with such similar basic narrative frameworks can engage with their themes in equally insightful and assured ways, to very different results. It’s rare to see a single great film with an elderly female character at its center, and even more so to see two in such a short amount of time.

Mija is a poor woman. She’s a part-time caretaker and house-cleaner for a sole elderly client and she spends the rest of her time looking after a teenage grandson who refuses to give her the slightest attention or respect, and the act of mothering seems nearly impossible because of the wide generational gulf between them. Mija soon learns that her grandson was likely involved in a crime that resulted in the suicide of a young classmate, and the comparatively wealthy fathers of the other boys involved have assembled themselves together in an attempt to coldly buy their way out of legal troubles.

She’s started to forget certain nouns, and after several visits to the doctor it’s clear that she has Alzheimer’s disease and will soon begin to lose other parts of her memory. Even before she found out about her disease, she had enrolled in a poetry class and admires the the work of her classmates and of professionals, but can’t bring herself to write a poem despite (or because of) the urgent need to express the tribulations of all that has happened around her and the overwhelming knowledge that she will soon no longer possess any expressive capabilities at all.

Lee (whose previous works include Secret Sunshine and Oasis) worked previously as a novelist and didn’t begin working in the film industry until his forties. His filmmaking style (in both thematic preoccupation and aesthetic employment) is perhaps best described as humanist and restrained. It’s a filmmaking style that suggests a lifetime of experience akin to that of the film’s protagonist, seeing a beauty in momentary, small, perhaps fleeting details and possessing an insight into a complexity of human nature. Time and again in Poetry we are introduced to supporting characters who give a first impression that is altered by new new information regarding who they are, what they need, and why it is they do the things they do or act the way they act. Poetry shows how difficult it is to really understand another human being.

Poetry isn’t necessarily a film that sees human nature as inherently good, and goes a long way to establish the selfishness of some people, but the film is far from cynical as its most honorable characters arise from some unexpected places. It’s refreshing to see a film that makes a case for what it means to be a good, empathetic person without drawing black-and-white lines between virtue and villainy. For all the darkness that surrounds Mija’s life, Poetry is ultimately affirming in a way that feels honest and earned. There is never a fake or false moment.

The film’s restrained tone and style are even somewhat deceptive. With films of deliberate pace, in which the filmmaker takes the time to allow the character to interact with, amongst many things, the details of nature (like poetry itself, objects like flowers and a river develop meaning as the film progresses), a cinematic preoccupation with such details is rarely interpreted as synonymous with plot development. But what’s so surprising about Poetry is Lee’s unassuming mastery over the elements therein. By the film’s final moments, one realizes that not a scene has been wasted, and seemingly inconsequential moments and character interactions come together in a way that allows the film to achieve a closure that is natural and complete without feeling too tidy. Poetry is a masterwork, but a modest one.

The Upside: With a great lead performance, layered characters, strong storytelling, subtly assured filmmaking, and an honest and touching conclusion, Poetry might be one of the best films around this year.

The Downside: It’s certainly not for everyone, and some audiences may be put off by its slow pace.

On the Side: Poetry won an award for screenwriting at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival.