Milos Stehlik reviews the South Korean film 'Poetry'

February 25, 2011

by Milos Stehlik

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Yun Jung-hee plays a grandmother struggling with Alzheimer's disease in the film "Poetry."

Mija is a 66-year-old grandmother. She lives in a small town and takes care of her teenage grandson with a capacity to get into trouble. She earns cash by taking care of a stroke victim. Midway through the film, she starts showing the effects of the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. There’s not that much more that happens in Lee Chang-dong’s South Korean film, Poetry, except one thing: Mija joins a poetry class in a local cultural center and begins the journey to find words which will specify what she is feeling.

Here is the magic – a film that’s as quiet and as simple and as off-the-star-beaten-track as you can get. Poetry is a film that twists your heart and mind so that it will never quite be the same again. In the poetry class, Mija watches her teacher guide his students as they search for the way to write their poem, plumbing their histories and their emotions. For Mija, who lives in a cramped apartment, this poetry class is a way to get out of her mundane existence. But, because of the onset of Alzheimer’s, words are slowly slipping away from her as when, on a visit to her doctor, she tells him she has trouble remembering nouns.
 
This woman – played by the remarkable Korean actress Yun Jung-hee, who came from a 16-year retirement from film to take this role – is nothing special. She likes ordinary things and lives a very ordinary life. She is not particularly well educated.
 
The poetry class seems suited for her. She likes to sit in the park and listen to birds. “I do have a poet’s vein, “she says, “I do like flowers and say odd things.”
It is these odd things that her poetry teacher talks about when she walks into his class – an apple is not really an apple until you have really learned to see it. You have to embrace it, understand, it, feel it.
 
Finding that personal voice and the ability to transform it into poetry which communicates one’s soul to others turns out to be a greater challenge. When, exactly, Mija asks her poetry teacher, does poetic inspiration come? She might as well ask, “Why art? Why life?”
 
In the subtle emotional complexity of this aging woman’s life, slowly being transformed by poetry, Lee Chang-dong’s film asks the most primary of questions, plunging us headlong into that dark space in which a few words, simply but perfectly strung together connect to something inside us, warm the heart or chill us, give us meaning.
 
The breakthrough for Mija comes when she discovers that Wook, her grandson and five of his friends, are implicated in the death of a girl classmate, who is found floating face down in the river, and who had accused some classmates of having raped her.
 
Confronted with the horror, facing having to come up with a huge sum of cash to bribe the dead girl’s mother’s silence, Mija steps outside meeting the four other fathers at a restaurant, emerges from her naïve writing block, takes out her notebook and writes about blood: “a flower as red as blood.”
The beauty of Poetry, the film, is not just this simple journey of the narrative, but the poignant, studied, and always understated visualization with which it grabs us; a poetry of images never too obvious to be grasped. Instead, Poetry acts from the inside, making us become better than we are as we watch it, humanized as this woman is, connected to the soul of poetry – each of us, in the end, a poet.
 
Milos Stehlik is the director of Facets Multimedia and Worldview’s weekly film contributor. His commentaries reflect his own views and not necessarily those of Facets Multimedia, Worldview or WBEZ.