A river runs through Lee Chang-dong's Poetry - both a physical one, on which the body of a dead schoolgirl drifts, her story over before it has begun, and a more metaphorical river of emotion that carries the central character Mija through the problematic and unexpected eddies and rapids that her life is about to encounter. Both of these rivers and their riders are intrinsically linked, even before we are able to see the connection.

We meet Mija in the gentle flow of old age, as she discovers she is succumbing to the perils of Alzheimer's. In what amounts to an act of defiance against the loss of familiar words, she enrolls in a poetry class where the focus is on the contemplation of the very sorts of everyday objects she is beginning to struggle to name. Outside of the class, she is a care-giver in every sense, looking after her moody, virtually silent, ungrateful grandson Wook (Lee Da-wit) while his mother seeks work elsewhere, and acting as a nursemaid to an elderly man, who has immense power over her despite his physical weakness.

Worse is to come when Wook is accused of a heinous crime and Mija finds herself swept into a torrent of wheeling and dealing by his friends' fathers, who seek to replace emotion with a bank book.

Although on the one hand a gentle character study, the waters of Lee's film run deep. Just as poetry is described as something of a dying art, so it seems that emotions such as remorse or empathy count for very little in a patriarchal society where open shows of bowing respect seem like little more than set dressing when it comes to the crunch. The men are rushing to forget at the same time as Mija wants nothing more than to remember.

Lee is fascinated by impairment, both of the physical sort - most of his films contain handicapped characters of one type or another - and more emotional trauma. While Poetry may not be quite as immediately heart-rending as grief-study Secret Sunshine, the implications of what is happening to Mija - and the women seen here, in general - are, if anything, even more disturbing.

Veteran actress Yun Jeong-hie, who came out of a 15-year retirement to take on the role of Mija brings a fragile beauty and strength to the part, lending her character an air of inscrutability that is intriguing rather than frustrating. Lee hasn't quite shaken off his novelistic background, however, and while this often gives his scripting an enviable, lyrical quality, it also means that he has a tendency to linger a little too long in places. Still, as Mija points out, somehow "even the suffering is beautiful".

Reviewed on: 09 Dec 2011
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A grandmother discovers poetry and begins to reassess the world around her.
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Paul Griffiths ****

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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