"Poetry is by turns a serene and haunting piece."

Poetry is the new moving story from writer/director Lee Changdong, following up his 2007 Cannes scorer Secret Sunshine. He again spins events around a tragic death, but this time makes sure that grief, so ardently portrayed before, is now pointedly suppressed.

Mija (Yun Junghee), an ageing, cash-strapped lady who still takes care to dress well, lives with her middle-school grandson Wook. She divides her time in the nondescript suburbs near the Han River between being a paid carer to a stern man with physical needs, cooking at home and getting diagnosed with early onset dementia. Seemingly caught on a treadmill, her politely inquisitive mind leads her to take a poetry class at her local cultural centre. The course strikes some long interred aspiration, but she is courteously disconcerted when challenged to write a poem for the first time in her life.

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Seeking inspiration, Mija follows her tutor’s advice “to see things well” and starts to observe her everyday living, as if for the first time in decades. As her imagination gently excites and frustrates her, she becomes aware of a local school girl’s recent suicide. Then it becomes clear that the monosyllabic Wook and his friends are involved in the tragedy.

Poetry is by turns a serene and haunting piece. The action, although that almost seems too strong a word, drifts along with Mija, at her pace, all the while resting upon the body of a truly despicable crime. She is confronted, and comforted, by fathers and authority figures who are more interested in protecting their children’s future than actually addressing the issues in the present. Mija has no place with their generation and, despite affection and hard toil, can nary communicate with let alone fathom her aimless grandson. His mother, her daughter, is conspicuously absent from his life. It’s a damning statement on the generational loss of morals and values in modern South Korea.

Strong though this may be, for Lee it is a relief against which to consider his greater interest. The waning, dispossessed Mija both articulates and personifies the poetry, the difficult expression of feeling and understanding, to which she aspires. Through her Lee contemplates what he sees as the increasingly denigrated role and place of poetry in a modern society. His film carries light touches of visual lyricism and metaphor throughout so as to inescapably widen the question to cinema, to art in general.

Lee steers this away from becoming cumbersome by never addressing his theme bluntly. We have to work it out for ourselves, ‘see it properly’ perhaps, or not. The exact motivations and actions of his earthy characters are far from described at times. They are led by the estimable Yun Junghee, returning to Korean cinema after a 16 year hiatus, who inhabits the seemingly ashen Mija with a compelling mix of frailty, dignity and ambiguity.

This overall indirectness rises to a genuinely emotional ending, both an elegiac summation and eventual release of previous two -hour running time. It is Lee’s melancholic answer to his question; surely art has a crucial role in helping us express and content with our humanity in a world where such events come to pass.

Reviewed on: 03 Oct 2012
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A grandmother discovers poetry and begins to reassess the world around her.
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Amber Wilkinson ****

Director: Lee Chang-dong

Writer: Lee Chang-dong

Starring: Yoon Jeong-hee, Ahn Nae-sang, Lee Da-wit, Kim Yong-taek

Year: 2010

Runtime: 139 minutes

Country: South Korea

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