Novelistic in its attention to day-to-day detail and thematic complexity, Poetry is the latest significant film from South Korea's Lee Chang-dong ( Oasis, Secret Sunshine). The winner of the best screenplay prize at Cannes in 2010, the film focuses on a grandmother facing misfortune compounded by calamity: First, she is diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease; soon after, she learns that her teen-aged grandson, who is in her care, has been implicated with five other boys in the death of a female classmate whose body we have seen in the film's opening scene, floating face-down in a river.
Like Lee's last film, Secret Sunshine, Poetry is about a woman literally at her wits' end. But while injustice and suffering are the backdrop here, Poetry, as its title suggests, is also a meditation on how beauty can find its place in such a world.
Early in the film, shortly after a worrying check-up with her doctor, Mija (Yung Jeong-Hie) wanders into the local community centre and enrolls in a poetry class. The professor produces an apple, and promises that they will soon learn to see the apple as if for the first time.
Mija, a chic 67-year-old who favours sunhats and floral prints, spends her days caring for her sullen teen-aged grandson, Wook, while also acting as a maid and caregiver for an elderly stroke victim.
One afternoon, she learns of Wook's crime from a group of fathers of the other boys, who have gathered for a hideously amiable lunch to talk about taking care of the problem. ("Although I feel sorry for the dead girl …" begins one father.) They want Mija to chip in to a fund to buy the silence of the victim's mother.
What's more, she has to produce a poem for her class, and all she can do is make notes to herself about flowers and fruit.
Poetry progresses slowly, but one by one the tumblers fall into place. Through a series of visits and new friendships at a spoken-word poetry club, further encounters with the old man she tends, and amid more pressure to come up with the hush money, Mija has a moment of over-arching clarity. Art isn't just seeing apples anew: It's about taking an empathetic leap into the lives of others.
Yun, a veteran Korean actress, gives a splendidly layered performance as an aging flirt who covers her anxiety and confusion with a cheery patter ("I do have a poet's vein, I like flowers and say odd things").
The real impact of Poetry, though, comes from director Lee's pitch-perfect control of tone, as the film's apparently haphazard sequence of events resolves into a conclusion both startling and poetically just.
- Directed and written by Lee Chang-dong
- Starring Yun Jeong-hie
- Classification: 14A