Mija (Yun Jung-hee), the heroine of South Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry, is an aging woman who seems to carry her melancholia and uncertainty in her pocket; a look tells you something isn’t quite right while the exact nature of that thing remains somewhat elusive. There’s her walk, which is tentative and uncertain, as well as the manner of her dress, which is inappropriately formal and ostentatious much of the time, probably out of a sad, transparent need to stand out. Mija also, more disturbingly, possesses an aloof, ghostly, intangible quality; she never entirely seems to be in the present tense. Mija certainly has grace, but it’s the kind of fragile featherweight grace that will inspire the viewer to feel protective of her; she appears to be a woman who, having faced considerable and perhaps unimaginable pain, has somewhat regressed into a past that maintains for her a nonsensical yet reassuring naïveté.
We’re never entirely filled in on Mija’s past, but her present is certainly far from enviable. A husband, whom she presumably once had, is nowhere to be seen and probably dead. A grown daughter works abroad, leaving Mija as primary caregiver for her grandson Wook (Lee David), a shiftless teenage layabout who grants her occasional modest requests for common courtesy with entitled peevishness and even contempt. Mija earns her menial income performing intimate and embarrassing duties for a handicapped elderly male employer named Mr. Kang (Hira Kim), who treats her with a gruff demeanor, born of familiarity, that the viewer may initially identify as affection, though his manner is ultimately revealed to be rooted in motivations both more complex and desperate.
Mija, in short, is an unhappy woman stuck in an upper-lower-class situation that rings awfully familiar whether you’re of South Korean or American or any number of other descents, and the film is about her having finally been pushed to a point in which she can’t afford to withdraw any further. Mija must finally reach out, even if it’s in a tentative, casual fashion that allows her to assert herself without spurring the wrath of her—intentionally, pointedly—all-male oppressors. Facing a loss of memory that could be Alzheimer’s-related, Mija talks her way into an already full poetry class, and it’s this act, as well as a shockingly ambiguous pity fuck near the end of the film, that allows her to make a brief mark that ultimately unites her with another lost soul.
Poetry can be thematically blunt, but Lee admirably walks a fine line between the poetic and the trite; his direction is hauntingly lucid (Mija is never pitied), and the nearly impressionistic images imbue the film with legitimate mystery. And the final 30 minutes, in which the two story strands are tied together with surprising and remarkable satisfaction, suggest the cleansing, honest power of a 1940s Joan Crawford martyr picture if one were directed by a transcendentalist poet.
Yet Poetry has been greeted with such ecstatic praise that I feel compelled to bring it down to Earth a bit. The film, at times, is so neat, and humane, and compassionate, and absolutely beyond reproach in its careful craftsmanship and plotting, that you can’t, or at least I couldn’t, help but wonder if injecting a little spontaneous disreputable spunk in this thing might’ve made it feel more alive, as opposed to an art object meant to be viewed and savored with religious appreciation and awe by the cinephile population. Every symbol, every irony, every misery, clicks into the story with such perfect assurance that you wonder if you’re watching a film or reading a term paper on Manifestations of Gender Cretinism in the Contemporary South Korean Regime. As Mija, veteran Yun Jung-hee is exquisite and heartbreaking (she achieves that difficult task of conveying a self-conscious character’s emotions entirely with her eyes and posture), but the character, who manages her own quiet expression at the film’s conclusion, never entirely breaks free from Lee’s own contrivances. Lee and Yun have created a protagonist that merits considerable compassion, but, frankly, not quite as much in the way of actual interest.
Lee Chang-dong's strikingly detailed, misleadingly casual compositions (a reliance on master shots, little camera movement) are preserved with spectacular care on this Kino International disc. One can practically discern individual beads of water in the river that occupies the film's spellbinding opening shot, while the wide vistas are rendered with the crystal, painterly clarity, as well as the more lived-in everyday grit, that the filmmaker clearly intended. The sound is just as impeccably immersive, which is especially evident, once again, during the gorgeous water scenes that bookend the film. One the year's best transfers.
The extras are scant and unassuming. The making-of documentary is really a pair of interviews with Lee Chang-dong and Yun Jung-hee discussing their work together on the film, particularly their mutual concern that Yun had been in retirement from acting for the better part of 15 years. The interview with actor Ahn Nae-sang is about as typical, though he charmingly admits to wondering how the shooting script would possibly work as a film that wouldn't be terribly boring. Also included are stills and trailers.
This beautiful but somewhat overpraised film gets the gorgeous transfer it deserves. Just don’t hold your breath for too many extras.