There is a scene near the end of Poetry in which Mija, an elderly woman who recently started taking poetry classes, starts crying outside a recital dinner. It is dark outside. A drunken member of the recital club, a detective, asks her what is wrong, and makes a pathetic attempt at trying to work out what the problem is. It is at this moment, I think, where it really hits home just how much that poor woman has to cry about.
And that leads to an interesting question, for after seeing the film and reading several summaries of the plot, I found myself wondering just what film all the others had seen. The general consensus on this film seems to be that this is about a woman, recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s who starts developing an interest in poetry. Hmmm…well, this is true. Mija is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and does start a month long poetry course. But the summary is misleading. Most of the people I’ve talked to started watching the film thinking it was going to be a melodrama exploring the agony of a woman descending into an ever spiralling loss of memory and independence; some were dreading it, as they immediately believed that this would be twee, clichéd slush.
What a shock they were in for. Alzheimer’s plays its role in the film, but it is a sub plot, serving to add only a piquant poignancy to the events that transpire throughout. In a sense, the film really is about poetry, but not in the way you’d expect. It is largely about two people: the first, obviously, is Mija. She is a mystery to the viewer to begin with, and in a sense, she still is at the end; but only in that we might not know much more about her life and her background. We have picked up snippets along the way; the daughter who ran away, leaving Mija to bring her grandson up alone; the chic dresses to conceal her poverty; the two brief, beautifully handled glimpses into her earliest memories and childhood. The first occurs during one of the poetry classes, when the tutor asks his students to remember the happiest memory they have. The second is a central part of the film’s quietly stunning final sequence (which I will come onto later). For Lee Changdong knows something about characterisation that very few directors these days really know; the most effective characterisation never lies in how much we know of a character in terms of their life story. What we learn about Mija, primarily, is not her background, but something far more important; we learn how she thinks, how she feels, and we feel her pain and anguish alongside her. At the end, we should feel that ‘justice’ has been done. But we are just as confused and unsatisfied as Mija. She is as morally unsure of herself at the end as at the beginning of her ordeal, following the revelation of a horrific secret that, in a single stroke, turns her world upside down.
The second is a young girl at the local high school who commits suicide. The incredible opening sequence opens on a river, flowing quietly along the bank where a few children are playing. One of the boys looks up and sees something floating on the surface; as it comes nearer, driven by the soft current, we realise (at about the same time as the young boy) that it is the body of a young girl, face down, in the water. She has jumped off a bridge. What we later learn about her and her motives lead into very dark, sad places.
However, it is undoubtedly Mija who carries the film. I must say, if it weren’t for the fact that I had, only last week, seen Tilda Swinton’s stunning performance in We Need To Talk About Kevin, I would be writing here, without doubt, that Jeong-hie Yun’s performance here as our protagonist is the female performance of the year. I’m still tempted. It is an exquisitely understated, nuanced piece of acting, and indeed, those two adjectives could be used quite adequately to describe the film as a whole. Some of Mija’s actions, I am sure, will confuse some viewers initially; some might even go so far as to say parts of it are contrived. I don’t think so. The film certainly isn’t perfect; at 139 minutes, it might be slightly too long, and there is a scene in which Mija talks to the dead girl’s mother which isn’t flawed, exactly, but I couldn’t help feeling the narrative decision they made there in bringing the conversation to an abrupt close was missing an opportunity for a scene of searing emotional honesty. But even that scene helps accentuate the poignancy of events that follow.
Even with its (minor) flaws, Poetry is incredibly impressive. Far from being saccharine and predictable, Lee Changdong’s film is stately, incredibly intuitive and deeply troubling. There is much tenderness to be found in this film, but just as much cruelty and despair. The film is beautiful and devastating in equal measure, but it also subtle and honest. You can see the director’s fantastic powers of observation simply in the cinematography; very few actually take note of how a film like this is filmed, but consider, for example, how often the camera is stationary – in a magnificent scene between Mija and her sleeping grandson in his bedroom late at night; in a restaurant, where we see a collection of parents meeting for the first time, and Mija abruptly leaves – the camera remains still, keeping all of the remaining men in the shot, while peering at a window straight ahead, through which we see Mija walking around outside. Think of how thoughtfully those unspectacular, beautifully subtle shots have been composed. The stationary camera is a wonderful trick that many directors have learned, largely from Ozu – although Lee Changdong doesn’t use it to such painstaking exclusive effect, he exploits its potency.
And then there is that final sequence. It is the first and only time we see the deceased girl in the whole film. But that is not all. Nothing happens plotwise during this exquisite denouement; but it is one of the most moving, haunting final sequences I have seen in a film all year. It is perhaps only in these last minutes that it will dawn on some members of the audience just what the film has been about all along. And in its quiet, subdued, meditative way, this is a deeply disturbing, thought provoking film. I saw it a number of days ago now, and it still hasn’t left me. Those final moments sent a shiver down my spine. Please, if you see one film in the whole of the Asia Triennial Manchester, make it this one!
Review by LiveWire Young Film Critic, James Martin (October ’11)