Mija lives with contradiction. So do I, and so do you, of course, but in Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry, it seems so stark. This 66-yr-old grandmother (played by beloved Korean actor Yoon Jeong-hee) has an almost whimsical lightness, as when she announces she’s going to take a poetry class at the cultural center. “I do have a poet’s vein,” she says. “I do like flowers and say odd things.” Yet her life also looks pretty bleak from our perspective, from the grim apartment she shares with her sullen teenaged grandson (Lee Da-wit) to her part-time job working as a maid and caregiver for an old man who seems to have suffered a stroke. This movie is a small masterpiece that reminds me of exactly why I watch film: to find unexpectedly searching, overwhelming films that haunt me for days afterward.

Poetry is such a perfect central conceit for the film, for the class sends Mija into an eager new determination to see the world with fresh eyes. When her teacher explains, “Up till now, you haven’t seen an apple for real,” she gazes up at him with naïve awe. “To really know what an apple is, to be interested in it, to understand it,” he explains, “that is really seeing it.” This is exactly Mija’s view of poetry: lovely words about lovely things. But as she struggles to complete her sole assignment for the class — to write a single poem — her world begins to change, and she finds herself forced to see the ugliest things.

Mija may seem a bit foggy-headed in her innocent cheeriness, but we realize soon enough that everyone around her works is even more expert at overlooking their own pain as well as the tragedies of others. When she learns that she has the early stages of Alzheimer’s, she won’t tell her daughter, who lives in another city and seems to have very little to do with her son Wook. Instead, Mija cheerfully explains on the phone that the doctor told her to write more poetry, and then proceeds to boast a little about how close she is to her daughter, what good friends they are. But when she does broach something more serious — the fact that Wook is driving up her electricity bills to unmanageable levels — her daughter seems to brush over and ignore Mija’s precarious financial situation. Mija’s almost comical attempts to sing away her worries at a karaoke bar or gaze into the soul of a tree or a piece of fallen fruit in search of poetic inspiration appears, after all, to be perfectly in keeping with the head-in-the-sand approach to life taken by all around her.

There is one thing that cracks her surface dottiness: learning that not only is her grandson Wook a typically self-centered teenage douchebag, but he’s also a member of a group of boys responsible for a shocking series of crimes. It’s so shocking, in fact, that Mija’s first response is to repress the information — and you realize by the end of the film that we viewers, too, are weirdly eager to repress it. It’s the most eerie bit of finger-pointing I’ve ever seen a film achieve. The other boys’ fathers invite Mija to a cafe to discuss the problem — and by problem they mean how to bribe the victim’s family so they will not bring in the police to prosecute the boys. These men insist they feel bad about the crimes, but “now’s the time for us to worry about our own boys” — the boys’ futures must be secured. Mija wanders outside in a daze, crouches near a lovely flower, and takes out her notebook to jot down some poetical notes. Yet despite her instincts to repress the information, now when she sees red flowers, she can’t help but take notes about blood and pain.

It’s extraordinary, this film. It’s sending me on a quest to locate all of Lee’s previous films — not an easy task, as it turns out — and confirms my uneducated view that South Korea is one of the very few most creative cinemas in the world right now. It’s also one of the few that regularly features retirement-age women in phenomenally complex and rich parts — witness last year’s Mother, which should have earned its star a best-actress Oscar. There’s also a feminist vision at the center of this film that I can’t delve into without spoiling crucial parts of the plot; and I can’t help but see a potent political fable in Poetry, one that worries about society’s future in a way that is both transfixing and, ultimately, transcendent. Please see this film, and then tell me how much its elements come to you in dreams and visions. For it has most certainly haunted me in a way no thriller or horror film can.

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