Words that matter
Lee Chang Dong's Poetry basically follows two storylines: a grandmother's late-life quest to write a proper poem, and her equally belated attempt to deal with her grandson Wook's (Lee Da-wit) involvement in a schoolmate's apparent suicide.
I can recall two scenes that seem to encapsulate Lee's distinct flavor. The grandmother Mija (Yun Jeong-hie) on a sidewalk bench, trying to force inspiration by sitting under a tree, looking up, and swaying. An elderly neighbor, squat and topped with curly white hair, walks past her, pauses, asks what she's doing; Mija replies that she's trying to see the tree well, feel it, “understand its thoughts, listen to what it says to me...”
Poor Mija seems sincere enough--her body's gentle to-and-fro rocking suggests an openness to new experience. Her words, though, betray the consciousness of a fruitcake, all dried pineapples, candied cherries, and nuts; the neighbor has no choice but to turn her back and walk away, tossing a worried glance over one shoulder. Unspoken statement: the woman is crazy and needs to be brought back down to earth--said downfall to be initiated by the buzz of Mija's cellphone. The father of one of Wook's friends has called, and wants her to come to a parents' meeting.
Comes the second scene: she's at the meeting, and the fathers (five of them) debate on whether or not to wait for the beer to arrive (they don't). One of the fathers gives it to her straight: apparently the girl had killed herself because Wook and his five friends had been repeatedly raping her for the past few months. No violent reaction from Mija, but she does slide her hands slightly forward on the desk, to quietly clutch at each other. As more details follow, each father owns up to his son's role in the crime (“That's my son;” “that'll be mine.”) The accounting of responsibility, done casually by each of the boys' parents, drives the truth home: this is not some silly boys' escapade, recounted with exaggeration; this really happened, with the possibility of scandal and jail time to follow. Mija excuses herself to step out and admire some cockscomb growing outside. One of the fathers joins her to ask what she's doing, and she tells him that she's taking down notes: she's written that the cockscomb she's looking at is “as red as blood.”
So goes Lee Chang Dong's latest feature, where gentle comedy commingles with an even gentler serenity, and the horror is all the stronger for being folded into the everyday business (a round of beer, “that's my son”) of a last-minute parent's meeting. Mija's quest to write a poem is especially ironic because she seems to have so much potential material from her own life to write a half-dozen tragic sonnets: she lives in a tiny apartment, her daughter is divorced and has moved to Busan, she's afflicted with Alzheimer's (she learns during a hospital visit), her grandson's a possible sociopath. But that's part of the beauty of Ms. Yun's character--she seems blind to the drama of her own life, or at least blind to the possibilities of exploiting her life for writing material, or at least hesitant to use it immediately, as a quick fix to meet an academic requirement. If she is to learn how to write poetry, Lee seems to suggest and Mija seems to sense, it will be the hard way, through the patient and thorough digestion of painful, painful material--a skill she has yet to learn, but will.
That's how the film progresses, basically--the patient and thorough digestion of painful, painful material. It's told almost exclusively through Mija's eyes--one can write an entire article about how Lee wields point of view, how information is withheld from his protagonist until the right revelatory moment (when she learns of her grandson's crime, for one, and when she finally determines her grandson's attitude to said crime). It is beautifully understated and deliberately, precisely paced; it packs a surprising amount of material into its two-hour plus running time, with what seems like a minimum of dialogue.
By film's end a poem is recited, and Lee accompanies the poem with a series of images. It's the familiar trope in many a dramatic film, a retracing of the journey Mija took, from her own world to the victim's, from sunny ignorance to quiet awareness; but Lee accomplishes this with such elegance, such eloquence--we eventually realize there is more than one journey being taken here, and the passing down of a point of view from one character to another--that the end result is literally a poem: a short piece where every detail carries more than its own weight of meaning.
Korean cinema covers a wide range and offers surprising variety: Kim Ki Duk's surrealism, Park Chan Wook's outrageousness, Bong Joon-ho's genre-bending, Hong Sang Soo's elliptical storytelling, just to name a handful. Add to this Lee Chang Dong's straightforward humanity and delicate sensibility (this feature is, I suspect, his response to Bong's recent Mother (2009), and is in many ways a far more disturbing than all of Park's ultraviolence), and you just have to admire how wide that range is, how astonishing the variety. One of the best films not just of this year, but of several years.
First published in Businessworld, 1.19.12