Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry is another sobering philosophical work by the South Korean auteur. Man or woman, young or old, handicapped or perfectly abled, the great filmmaker’s characters are all victims—some more willing than others—of a society in which male violence thrives. But while Poetry, like Secret Sunshine and Oasis before it, is another contemplation of an innocent’s sense of grief and guilt in the wake of tragedy, it is also a more explicitly metaphysical treatise.
The title might suggest that Lee’s vision is a florid one, but the only pretense of artifice in the film are the flowery garbs the sixtysomething Mija (Yun Jung-hee) dons whenever she leaves the small home she shares with her deadbeat teenaged grandson, Wook (Lee David). She’s been forgetting things lately, simple words like “wallet” and “bleach” (such is the impact of capitalism that she luckily remembers “Clorox”), and tells a doctor she often feels electricity shooting through her body. Even before the chatterbox is unsurprisingly diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, her seemingly arbitrary interest in poetry has already registered as a kind of existential panic: Here is a woman who yearns to speak a new language, unconsciously aware that she’s forgetting to speak the one that she already knows.
Something the title does correctly insinuate is Lee’s fixation with words—how lexicon defines our lives, how we contain words, and how words sometimes contain us. “In order to write poetry you must see well,” says Mija’s poetry teacher, gently but with great conviction, to his class but also to the audience. In these scenes, featuring Mija and her classmates appearing like deer caught in headlights in their search for inspiration, the film over-articulates its themes. A less coddling expression of Mija’s struggle with consciousness comes later when she, unable to write her first poem, stares down at a blank sheet of paper and the rain, like tears, becomes her pen.
Mija, who makes ends meet as a maid to a disabled older gentleman, learns that her grandson and his friends repeatedly raped a girl their age, driving her to suicide, and spends much of the film paralyzed by the thought of having to raise five million won to silence the dead girl’s mother. Though she never says as much, it’s obvious she’d rather not; it’s in Yun’s extraordinary body language, the way she leaves meetings with the other boys’ fathers in a sort of stupor, as if aware that paying the woman would mean buying into a system that thrives on squashing female agency.
Tidy as Lee’s storytelling may be, the mess of hurt Mija endures richly and unexpectedly speaks to both her role as a woman and caregiver in her society. First she refuses to jerk her wealthy sad-sack boss off, then submits to him in a moment of weakness that also happens to speak to her humanity. Mija, riding the crippled gentleman, sheds tears—but they are as much for her as they are for the girl who her son and his friends tormented. The sex, a rape of sorts, becomes epiphany: Blackmail may seem like Mija’s agenda, but by submitting to her boss she’s able to empathize with the dead girl and, as a result, learn that to love her grandson need not mean that she has to protect him from the punishment he deserves.
Poetry’s message about language as a form of awareness may be too on-the-nose, but if it’s never exactly bothersome it’s because you never stop marveling at how the story’s seemingly disparate parts mysteriously and, finally, immaculately cohere to form a haunting picture of a woman whose every behavior suggests a concession to—and, ultimately, an affront to—institutionalized male aggression. The film’s beauty derives from Lee’s belief that there is nothing more liberating than learning to speak a language of one’s own creation.