Poetry (2010, Lee Chang-dong)
It begins tremendously, as a quiet and deeply felt work of (appropriately enough) real lyricism — the beautifully shot (by Hyun Seok Kim) color neorealist painting of an idyllic life beginning to softly come undone. That’s the life of vibrant and sprightly Mija, a grandmother of young spirit working as a nurse who’s started occasionally to forget things, just words and phrases and other confusing gaps. Her doctor’s concerned and she feels she must exercise her mind, prompting the enrollment in a course on poetry, an art she’s always been interested in but has never fully appreciated. Her calm is inspirational, a front to the frantic worries undoubtedly clouding an intelligent person faced with the slow loss of her mind. These elements are really enough for a fine and fascinating drama about aging and, sure, about art appreciation. If the film continued on the track of its first ten minutes, I believe it’d be a near-certain touchstone of South Korean cinema and world cinema in general.
So we were flummoxed and dismayed by writer-director Lee Chang-dong’s abrupt derailing of his narrative to make room for a bit of dour social commentary. He is undoubtedly salient and righteous when uncovering the conspiratorial sexist bullshit that surrounds the (repeated, habitual, horrific) rape and suicide of a teenage girl. A consortium of the parents of the several boys involved works with sickening nonchalance to buy off the girl’s family, not just to avoid an eternity of lawsuits, which would at least be a somewhat human cause, but to even keep the matter entirely out of the press. Mija happens to be the guardian of one of the boys involved, her grandson, whose adolescent arrogance is enough to inspire the audience to want to take eye-for-an-eye revenge on him. We don’t see the rape, just its aftermath, but we do see his cavalier and brutally spiteful treatment of his grandmother as though she were a piece of dirt, as though the needs and longings to which we as an audience are exposed mean nothing. As though, indeed, the broader beauty of the world means nothing.
But here’s what bothers me: Jongwook is shown in large part as a normal teenager, who plays video games and doesn’t want to pick up after himself. I suppose I can’t decide if this is a deliberate and disturbing statement about the banality of evil or if the sheer magnitude of the evil act committed — essentially, a murder, and a repeated and vindictive sexual assault — is poorly matched to the character involved. Of course mob mentality and peer pressure play a role, but I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the undercurrent of casual cynicism about rape that even the movie sort of succumbs to, by suggesting that these oh-so-normal boys who come from good families etc. might be the corner rapists! That’s normalization of abhorrent cruelty and it bugs me for the same reason that the movie logic of Paul Haggis’ Crash — that everyone in the world is a racist — bugs me. Of course, Mija is the voice of reason, clearly haunted by the girl’s face and the suggestions of her agony but even she is awfully protracted in her correct decision to turn the boy in to the police, to avenge the child. Once you’ve learned he’s guilty of such crimes, it’s hard to concentrate on the slights of leaving toys out on the floor and not saying thank-you for dinner. He raped a child. And the world is silent. What poetry or art depicted herein can compensate for such madness?
As a consequence, every theme established earlier in the film gets lost in the fold. By the time the reality of Mija’s onset of dementia sinks in, it no longer feels like the tragedy of the picture, as though Lee’s script was unable to handle such disintegration or such a subtle narrative arc. He’s aware of the relative weight of the things he’s juggling, but that doesn’t make the incapability here of contending with large, frightening ideas any less of a handicap. It bleeds through even to the rape story, for even the boy himself seems unaware of what he’s done, as though to so much as confront it in his own mind would destroy him — and us. But Mija’s mind does begin to leave her and she chooses to hasten it, following her surrender of Jongwook to law enforcement and a lot of middlebrow conversations about poetry (and vulgarity) in class. At the end of the film, she has essentially melded herself with the scenery, and the prettiness of it all has an ostensible narrative purpose but also seems to me a lazy comedown from the problems introduced in the film but never really dealt with. Instead, here is the outdoors!
This may be a mediocre film, but its central performance is one for the ages. Like Jean Arthur in Shane, Yun Jeong-hie was coaxed out of retirement to appear in Poetry and delivers a tortured, wide-eyed, weighted down Mija whose every expression, movement, and spoken word rings believable and true to the character as written. The simple loveliness of her very presence in the film is contrasted neatly by the complexity of the emotions that lurch around with increased intensity as the two hours wear on and the theme of poetry as direct expression and savior coalesces, or tries to, with the narrative. The despair written on Yun’s face is unmistakable; it’s hard to say whether this is something she’s pulling from a great depth or if it’s just strong empathy. If the latter, she certainly does a flawless job of transferring it to the viewing audience, whose aching identification with Mija never disappears.
I understand why the death of the young girl is central and crucial to the story: because guilt is central to the story. Sequences such as Mija’s low-key meeting with the girl’s mother in a garden, or those pertaining to the disgustingly casual attitudes of the group of men trying to save their sons, are brilliant. My issue is that the crime drama elements of the film are poorly merged not with Mija’s emotional cycle, where they sort of fit, but with the depiction of her personal life, especially her strange relationship with Jongwook. But there is also the matter of the mercy fuck she gives to a crotchety and horny old patient, after he attempted to coerce her earlier in the film; not only is this a pretty dubious notion of the way a woman would behave in this situation, its relationship to the narrative is so forced as to render it fully superfluous. Many minutes could’ve been removed from this film, its story streamlined, and its poetics of light and color and the lovely locations might well have become its flavor, its dramatic treatment of Alzheimer’s far more effective. 139 minutes is too long for a movie about poetry… but it’s much, much too long for a film that isn’t about poetry but wants to touch on it and a zillion other things, then tries to culminate in a poem that feels pale against all we’ve been through. The elegance of a central performance and strong set of ideas and images like this deserves the unfussy simplicity of a good story rather than a convoluted, frustrating plot. There’s something beautiful in here, dammit, which is just that much more maddening.