I’m basically either watching Italian slashers or films that might squeak onto a Top 10 of 2011 list right now. It’s an odd mixture. Poetry, made in 2010 and released in the US in 2011, has a good chance of being the latter. Written and directed by Chang-dong Lee who also made Secret Sunshine, which I wrote about recently, Poetry is an unfortunately named and poorly marketed film. It’s title gives a pretentious impression and belies the psychological nature of the story.
Jeong-hie Yun plays Mija, a grandmother raising her only grandson in a small Korean province. Mija has Alzheimer’s, is enrolled in a poetry class, and cares for a physically incapacitated man, Mr. Kang (Hira Kim). As with Secret Sunshine, the script for Poetry takes dramatic left turns. Where this narrative begins with the realization of dementia and as an intimate, affecting drama, it soon becomes something much darker, foreshadowed by its opening sequence of a young girl floating face-down in the river.
Mija’s grandson, Wook (Da-wit Lee) is one of six high-school boys who raped the dead girl prior to her suicide. The fathers of the other boys get together and decide that they will pay the victim’s family a settlement to keep the news out of the press. Mija doesn’t have the money. Much of the remainder of Poetry revolves around Mija’s subtly deteriorating state, her relationship with her grandson, her grief over the event, and her attempt to “discover” poetry and somehow use it as a method of coping.
In some sense Poetry almost functions as a direct sequel to Secret Sunshine. Mija could be a later version of the protagonist Shin-ae in that film. Chang-dong Lee’s treatment of the subject matter is also very similar: handheld camera, minimal coverage from scene-to-scene, undercurrent themes of religion and revenge, oddly sexual relationships. Still, Poetry is its own film. Jeong-hie Yun’s performance is exceptional, reminiscent of Hye-ja Kim’s in 2009’s Mother.
Lee’s strategy seems to be to push us into Mija’s world and alert us to the unreliability of her character early-on. He never takes that unreliability to an extreme in that it might alter the narrative or call it into question. We understand that she is suffering from Alzheimer’s in its early stages, but we don’t question her motivations. In some ways her newfound love of poetry is almost a counter to her Alzheimer’s. When Mija wanders the streets aloofly it could be because she’s forgotten her purpose, or because she’s simply searching for her poetic inspiration. A few times – including a beautifully staged meeting with the victim’s mother – Lee gives us direct (in this case, in the form of facial expressions) clues, but otherwise we are left to watch Mija drift through the situation.
The marketing of the Poetry – from the trailers I can remember – would have you believe that this is a film about a woman who walks around smiling and trying to write for 2+ hours. It probably featured that omniscient, gently baritone voiceover. In fact, the poetry in Poetry is as much Mija’s battle with grief, such that she is the only one depicted in the film to actually show any grief, as it is about pen to paper. When Mija finally does write a poem it leads into a flashback from an unknown perspective, as someone, perhaps Mija, perhaps Wook, perhaps the audience, gazes at the small moments prior to the girl’s suicide, including finally finding her on the bridge staring down at the rushing water below. Mija’s poem, read by her poetry teacher over the images of this flashback, function not only as apology, but also as a sort of understanding and symbiosis with the girl. It’s not the Mija eventually learns how to write a poem – there’s little emphasis on the actual class – it’s that she learns to be independent. Indeed, many of the final shots, including a POV from a bus, may be Mija’s departure from her home, making it a crosscut between flashback and current events, furthering the relationship between the dead girl and Mija.
SPOILER: There’s also the question of responsibility in Poetry. How far does a parent’s duty go? Mija, who doesn’t seem to be able to understand Wook, lets him be arrested in the end. It’s unclear whether she may have been able to actually step in to stop his arrest, but the fact remains that she only watches, not even moving towards him. She has, at that point, already paid her share of the settlement. She’s done that part of her duty. The moment when she watches him leave is shot quietly and without drama. There’s no reaction shot of Wook. It’s a sequence of letting go, and Lee’s camera emphasizes this idea by keeping the drama in the literal background, not so as to hide it, only in order to attach lesser importance to it. Consider the three shots that make up the sequence: 1) in a medium-wide shot of Wook and Mija playing badminton a car pulls up, passes them, and then stops in the background. 2) the camera is high on the shuttlecock in a tree. Mija’s racket comes into the foreground as she tries to hit it free. In the background and below, Wook is led away by the officer. 3) the camera frames Mija from behind and in the foreground as her grandson is gently pushed into the police car. All three of these shots keep Mija in the foreground and some combination of police/Wook behind her. It’s a clear visual indication that this phase of her life is passing behind her and a nice segue into the aforementioned flashback/current time crosscut.