Mija (Yun Jung-hee) is the antithesis of the title character in Bong Joon-ho’s Mother. Where the mother in that film insisted that her son was being framed for the murder of a young woman, doggedly tracking down leads until she unearthed the truth, Mija knows as soon as she hears it that Wook (Lee David), the impassive grandson she’s raising, was partly responsible for the suicide of a girl in his high school class. For Mija, the question is not how to prove Wook’s innocence, but how to do something much harder: She must figure out what justice looks like in a case like this and how to make sure it is done, without betraying her beloved grandson.
Mija learns the truth from the fathers of the other boys, who see it as an unfortunate but easily solved problem: They just need to hush up the school officials and the press and pay off the girl’s mother. Mija can’t bear to listen to their talk; she keeps drifting out of the room and they barely register her absence, patronizing her as she has no doubt been patronized her whole life. (The girlishly lovely Mija’s default mode is smiles and self-deprecating chitchat, and the other characters keep commenting on her beauty and her ultra-feminine clothes.) But writer-director Lee Chang-dong tunes us so precisely into Mija’s wavelength that her searching silences speak much louder than the men’s false, self-justifying words. Mija knows they owe the girl and her family more than just cash, and she knows she how important it is for the boys to acknowledge and atone for their crime.
Poetry nudges us a bit too hard every now and then, mostly when a kindly poetry teacher lectures his class about learning to truly see. Those unnecessarily expository moments stick out like a fly in a bowl of bisque, but they’re too rare and too minor to ruin this elegantly told morality tale, whose screenplay won the Best Screenplay award at Cannes. Making Mija’s thoughts and feelings clear without ever spelling them out, Lee follows several strands of resolutely everyday encounters to a deeply moving conclusion (while deciding what to do about the crime, Mija tends to a stroke victim, learns that she has early-stage Alzheimer’s, and joins that talky teacher’s poetry class). Cinematographer Kim Hyung-seok’s compositions pack in as much information as the screenplay, often framing the most important part of a shot in the background. Time and again, we watch Mija as she watches somebody else. The people she looks at generally overlook or ignore her, but she never misses a trick.
The 48th New York Film festival runs from September 24 to October 10.