Every Korean film that arrives on these shores seems to involve rape or death – or both – and Poetry is no exception. It shares its narrative trigger with Park Chan-Wook’s trend-setting Oldboy: the suicide of a teenage girl, throwing herself into a river following an act of sexual deviance. And some of the shots here are incredibly similar – I fancy director Lee Chang-Dong might even have used the same bridge. But compared to Oldboy and its increasingly violent successors, Poetry turns out to be a much tamer, more contemplative watch – a film which washes over you like the deceptively cool waters of its opening and closing shots.
The protagonist here is Mija, a ‘chic’ but unassuming sixty-something living in a modest flat where she cares for her teenage grandson, Wook. At the outset, she is struck by two disturbing pieces of information: first, a diagnosis from her doctor of the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, and secondly the discovery that Wook was involved in the circumstances leading to the girl’s suicide. She divides her time between cooking for Wook, earning money as a maid to a housebound stroke-victim, and meeting with the parents of the other boys implicated in the wrongdoing, who are seeking damage-limitation. Amidst it all, she decides to join a poetry class.
Actress Yoon Jeong-Hee, who was lured out of retirement for the role and spends almost the entire duration on screen, keeps most things internal, understanding that film acting is often about the merest twitches on an otherwise unperturbed face. It’s a perfect performance for her character, who barely confronts her grandson about the central unsavoury incident and ‘forgets’ to bring it up when sent to the victim’s mother to do just that. Only in her classes does she articulate any real emotion – she yearns to write a poem but cannot rediscover the inspiration of her youth (when she had ‘the poet’s vein’ – defined by her sister as ‘liking flowers and saying odd things’).
Somehow two and half hours pass with no let-up in the film’s gentle pull, despite the lack of major narrative development. Instead, there’s a weight of sadness that builds incredibly effectively – almost surreptitiously – as the scenes roll by. Interspersed with the basic plot are beautifully delivered, highly personal monologues by the poetry group’s members, many of whom have no other lines in the script. Shot exclusively as talking heads, we assume these confessions are being delivered to the rest of the class, but can’t be sure. Are these characters stepping out of the film to talk directly to us?
The ending reaches for the profound and transcendental, less clunkily than The Tree of Life, but nevertheless in a fashion which left me bewildered rather than swept away – and certainly under the impression that writer/director Lee’s true gift for ‘poetry’ exists in images, rather than words. But I think he earned this final extravagance. Poetry is a film of considerable craft and with a huge heart – a graceful, melancholy, meditative treat.