Yun Jung-hee stars in the Korean movie, "Poetry." (Kino International )
"Poetry" is daring in the ways only quiet, unhurried but finally haunting films have the courage to be. A character study of remarkable subtlety joined to a carefully worked-out plot that fearlessly explores big issues like beauty, truth and mortality, it marks the further emergence of Korean writer-director Lee Chang-dong.
Lee's script for this film took the best screenplay prize at Cannes last year, and his previous directing effort, 2008's "Secret Sunshine," won the festival's best actress award for Jeon Do-yeon. If there had been any justice at Cannes, "Poetry's" star, the acclaimed Yun Jung-hee, would have won best actress as well.
With more than 300 films to her credit as well as a victory in a national poll to select the greatest actress in Korean cinema history, Yun came out of a 16-year retirement to appear in this film. It was a wise choice.
As Mija, a flighty grandmother who is raising her middle-school-age grandson, Yun gives a performance of surpassing delicacy. The nuanced emotional range she displays as the film's situations peel layers off her personality and turn her into a different person is almost beyond the power of words to convey.
Before we so much as meet Mija, however, we see an image that encapsulates what is to come. Floating face down in a river is the corpse of a young middle-school girl, a suicide. Superimposed on a close-up of the body is the film's title, "Poetry," elegantly written in English and Korean, and it is this quietly unnerving contrast between the parallel tracks of beauty and death that is at the heart of the proceedings.
When we first meet Mija, frankly, we're not completely enthralled. Though she's a self-sufficient small-town pensioner who earns extra money cleaning for a wealthy elderly stroke victim, Mija is also a self-absorbed aging beauty, "chirpy like a skylark" someone says, who is too flirty and flighty to totally live in the real world. Two simultaneous developments decisively change all of that.
One is Mija's typically impulsive decision to take a poetry course at a local adult education center. Attracted by the hand-lettered sign that reads "You Can Be A Poet," she finagles her way into the class and sits spellbound as the charismatic teacher tells the group "the most important thing in life is to see. Poetry is all about discovering true beauty in our everyday life."
Mija's involvement with death is thrust upon her. A chance encounter with the devastated mother of the dead girl unnerves the grandmother, and when she quizzes her rude, loutish grandson Wook about the incident, he says he barely knew this classmate.
But as Mija soon finds out from the fathers of Wook's friends, this is not the truth. Her grandson turns out to be one of six students whose repeated sexual assaults on the girl led to her suicide. The fathers tell her this because, concerned that the truth could ruin their sons' futures, they are gathering "compensation money" for the girl's mother in the hopes of keeping a lid on the story and Mija is expected to contribute.
This knowledge, which both personally involves Mija and emphasizes the general horror and venality of the world she lives in, completely shatters the grandmother, who also has to face hints of the onset of dementia. Writer-director Lee and star Yun are especially adept at demonstrating just how unnerving these realizations are to someone who wants desperately to believe in the beauty of her surroundings.
At the same time Mija is attempting to live and experience life fully so she can successfully write a single poem. As her teacher says, what's difficult is not writing the poem but finding the heart to write one, and as Mija becomes aware of the corruption of the society she lives in, the intensity of her quest for purity and poetry increasingly impresses us.
Mija's struggle to come to terms with what is important in life in the face of all she's learned is "Poetry's" central dilemma, and the filmmaker resolves it in an especially elegant way that lingers in the mind. Insightful and observant about people, with a style that is allusive and indirect but always clear, Lee develops his themes slowly but with unmistakable sureness, and a gift like that is always a pleasure to experience.