Editor’s Note: This post is cross-published at Parallax View.
Lee Chang-dong won the Dragons and Tigers Award at VIFF 1997 for his debut feature, Green Fish. He has since won awards in major festivals the world over for Oasis (2002) and Secret Sunshine (2007), one of the most talked about films at Cannes and Toronto (and still without an American releases), and his new film, Poetry, arrives from Cannes with a well-deserved award for Best Screenplay.
So why isn’t Lee considered in the same company as Hong Sang-soo or Bong Joon-ho or Park Chan-wook? When I pitched the question to Daniel Kasman (film critic at Mubi) as we hoofed it to a VIFF screening, he confessed that he doesn’t see any real visual sensibility to the director, no directorial design to the cinema. I grudgingly concede his point. Lee is a superb screenwriter and a magnificent director of actors (Jeon Do-yeon was awarded Best Actress at Cannes for the amazing portrait of rage and betrayal of her intense performance in Secret Sunshine) and both of those skills are at the forefront of Poetry, an enthralling drama of an aging woman whose compassion is tested when she learns that her teenage grandson is guilty (with five of his friends) of raping a classmate, a “plain” schoolgirl who killed herself.
The situation can’t help but echo with comparisons to Bong Joon-ho’s Mother, where the fiercely devoted mother of a mentally incapacitated boy turns detective to save him from a charge of murder. But where Bong’s film features a warped Miss Marple with a maternal drive, a savage black humor and a jittery intensity that equates desperation of her emotional drive into the tensions and dangers of the traditional thriller, Lee offers a more ambivalent maternal figure trying to reconcile familial protectiveness with moral responsibility, and the spirit of a stifled artist trying to emerge from a soul that has spent her life in service to others. Lee’s images are rarely more than functional and he’s a more judicious writer than an editor, but his writing is superb and the performance of Yoon Jeong-hee, the respected Korean actress he coaxed out of retirement to play Mija, is sublime. At its best, Poetry offers a complex combination of anger, yearning and compassion from a woman struggling to communicate herself as words fail her.
Yoon creates a human portrait in unquestioning self-sacrifice who only starts to question it when she’s faced with her grandson’s crime at the same time she’s diagnosed with the early stages of Alzheimer’s. She has signed up for poetry classes almost impulsively but her desire to express herself, and her frustration at her inability to put what she sees into words (“In order to write poetry you must see well,” her teacher repeats like a mantra), suggests much more than simply creating verse. In her instinctive devotion to family, she has denied her own identity and is desperate to find herself just as she starts to slip away.
Mija makes excuses for her daughter, who ran away to the city after her divorce and dumped her insolent, ungrateful teenage son on Mija, and puts up with her grandson’s rudeness and irresponsibility with submissive stoicism, but something in the death of this girl touches her on a profound, personal level. That’s even before the fathers of the other boys band together to pay off the dead girl’s mother and stop her from reporting their crimes (the bullying and sexual assaults are recorded in her diary) to the police. (The school officials are equally eager to keep this all hushed up.) It’s not simply the indifference that these men show (or even worse, the callous disregard of the boys, who aren’t even punished by their own families, let alone the police) or a simple matter of human compassion from a woman watching a crime against an innocent girl covered up with mercenary efficiency that stirs her from her passivity. And despite the title, it’s not the adult education poetry class she takes that prompts any of this confusion, though it helps her focus when things are most confusing.
When first confronted with her grandson’s crimes and the plan by the cabal of fathers to pay off the victim’s mother, Mija literally checks out, wandering outside to takes notes on the flowers for her poetry class, to “see well,” in the words of her teacher. Perhaps it’s the overwhelming information hitting her without warning, but it’s also her way of trying to put everything into perspective. Mija may forget words but she knows what she wants to say. This situation challenges her to even know what she wants, but as she takes stock of the beauty in the world, she finds her own sense of justice guided by compassion and responsibility.
Lee doesn’t spell anything out explicitly, but there are hints of her past life stirred through the film. As people remark on her beauty, she recalls how her mother always told her to smile to attract the boys. That she almost never smiles is uncomfortably telling. When she plays down compliments, what we see as honest modesty looks more like practiced denial as the film plays out. Something in her past has led her to play down her looks and that memory has been churned up in the wake of the abuse heaped on this girl and the torment that drove her to suicide. She makes a pilgrimage to the river and to the bridge she jumped from and quietly attends the girl’s funeral and visits her memorial, suggesting an identification with this girl she never met. The callous behavior of the boys and their fathers, so concerned with scandal and appearances that they continue life as if nothing has happened, only add to her feelings of betrayal.
Mija is the only fully realized character in Poetry, a trait it shares with Lee’s previous films. The infirm old man she looks after in her part-time cleaning job is sketched in unpredictable strokes and compassionate colors (his act of sexual harassment is, at very least, an honest yearning for human experience that reverberates with Lee’s Oasis) and the profanely funny police detective in the