(No longer in theaters)
Feb 11, 2011
In the opening scenes of the wistful South Korean drama Poetry, boys playing on a riverbank spy the body of a schoolgirl floating toward them from a distant bridge, and then an aging woman, Mija (Yun Jung-hee), tries to explain to a brusque male doctor how she’s starting to forget familiar words. The film goes on to connect the two stories, the dead girl’s silence and the woman’s decline. There is, it quickly emerges, a literal connection between the girl, an apparent suicide, and a gang of boys that includes Mija’s lazy and uncommunicative grandson, Wook, who lives with her. (His father is long gone; his mother—Mija’s daughter—works abroad.) The second connection is subliminal. The gradual loss of language sends Mija into a panic: She senses she must somehow find a new way of seeing, of remembering, of being. She talks her way into a class on how to write poetry, and it’s there, while trying to find her voice, that she finds someone else’s—the voice of someone who can no longer speak for herself.
Poetry is the exception to one of my essential rules of filmgoing, which is: Whenever a teacher in a movie happens to write the movie’s theme on a blackboard, you should take a slug of booze. Director Lee Chang-dong puts the underlying metaphor right out in the open (it’s the title!), and yet it doesn’t detract from the film’s allusiveness. Along with Mija, we drink in the words of the professor who exhorts his students to look at objects as if they’ve never seen them before. (As the artist Robert Irwin put it, “Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees.”) And we watch her thinking. Yun, whom Lee enticed from retirement, has a clear, open face, demure with a touch of befuddlement. In some shots, she’s like a dainty and inquisitive child; in others, a sorrowful wraith. Her visage in the classroom jumps out of the screen: Is this a trick of Lee’s framing? A spotlight on Yun we can’t detect? Is there something extrasensory at work?
What’s increasingly clear is that Mija’s loss of words is both a medical condition and a metaphor, that her voice has also been muted by the condescension of Korea’s legally and economically privileged males. She works as a maid for one, an old man who’s losing both his speech and control of his body but who still has the power to pay Mija to clean up his shit. She’s treated with smug disdain by the fathers of the boys in Wook’s gang, men who have the money to make the dead-girl scandal go away, who value Mija only as a conduit to the grieving, impoverished single mother. And so this gracious and accommodating old woman can go with the river’s flow and let the girl’s story die with her—or find a way to make it live beyond them all.
Lee’s last film, Secret Sunshine, about a single mother who found and lost God after the murder of her son, was a symphony of wrong notes, but a lot of people liked its gutsiness and wild tonal shifts. (I found God praying it would end.) Poetry is its opposite. It comes together neatly, perhaps too neatly to be … poetry. But it’s not prosaic, either. It has a lucid grace.