Like how its film title suggests, this film brings us on a journey to discovering true beauty in life through the eyes of an elderly lady whose optimism in a life shrouded by a great intensity of pessimism has inspired stunningly raw beauty in our hearts. Without much theatrics and dramatic music present in Lee Chang-Dong's well-written film, Poetry takes up an observer's vantage point that allows us to study the elder lady's character who attempts hard at welcoming poetry into her life.
A profound story of an elderly woman in search of the fundamental poetry from her life. Aside from being sentenced with an Alzheimer’s disease, she faces another dilemma when her teen-aged grandson who is under her care is found to be one of the assaulters of a girl from his junior-high school who had committed suicide.
Lee Chang-Dong's a late entry in the South Korean cinema but has lately emerged as one of the new wave filmmakers to watch for with just 6 films into his filmography over the past 14 years or so. Currently 57 years of age, I believe one of the reasons why he has a knack of creating great films is due to his rich life experience that came with his seniority. It is also notable that Lee is a literature artist, a teacher, and the former Minister of Culture in South Korea.
Maybe it's never too late to be a filmmaker, hastiness isn't a virtue in cinema.
Yes, Lee takes his time to unravel a story of an elderly lady Mija (played by Yun Jeong-hie) in a vast amount of subtlety. The subtlety refers to the lack of artificial theatrics and drama and thus allowing the film to feel like a raw piece of documented tale that may be slow in pace but allows Mija to single-handedly drive and deliver the film.
**Advisory: Potential Spoilers Ahead**
A Palme d'Or nominee 2010, Poetry can be considered a case study of the character of Mija, portrayed and performed superbly by Yun as her act is the other prominent virtue of this film besides the screenplay by Lee (that earned the Best Screenplay at Cannes 2010). Mija starts the film as a chirpy lady who, despite her age, dresses fashionably well and tidy and houses an optimism in daily life that is admirable.
That is of course, until she learns of a discovered corpse of a 16 year old schoolgirl who'd thrown herself into the river. Social tragedy.
For some reason, nobody cares about this tragedy that's taken place in town. Nobody but Mija, who's very intrigued by this unfortunate incident and feels that something might be wrong and perhaps a remedy can be in place to prevent future similar cases. This is seen in a scene where she casually shared about the tragedy in a super-mart where nobody takes notice of her words that attempts to strike a fruitful conversation with the owner and the nearby shoppers. Social tragedy.
Plagued by an arm discomfort, Mija consults a doctor and later learns that her loss of nouns at times is due to an early stage Alzheimer's disease (dementia).
Keeping it from her immediate family, she tackles the issue by working out more (possibly to keep herself agile and energetic besides being a physiotherapy for her arm) and taking up poetry class at a nearby community centre. Although she holds some amount of interest in poetry, she isn't someone who's talented in it and thus constantly tries hard (often too hard) at deriving poetic words and inspirations.
Her poetry lecturer has highlighted that sometimes the more one tries to gather words of poetry, the more difficult it is to achieve it. Also, when questioned about where one has to go to find inspirations for poetry (beauty), he has interestingly replied that true beauty is everywhere in every thing we see in daily life.
While this might be philosophies in poetry, it does strikingly apply to Mija's life where she has to find beauty in her pessimistic life. Optimism in pessimism.
Mija stays with her teenage obnoxious grandson Wook, whose mother has left him under the care of his grandmother. While this subplot isn't pursued, it is meant to be taken as yet another social tragedy in today's context. Subsequently, she learns of Wook being responsible for the teenage girl's suicide as he's one of six male schoolmates who'd subjected her to rape in the school science laboratory for six months. Another social tragedy, though this one involves Mija personally as her grandson's involved.
The fathers of the other five boys gathered Mija together to try and resolve the matter discreetly by coming up with a compensation amount to be presented to the victim's mother so that she can forget about the incident and not bring it up to the Police. Alarmingly, a few of the school's staff are also aiding this attempt. I'm not sure about the culture in South Korea but I find that it is really out of my league of acceptance and heart-aching to watch as nobody seems to be decent enough (except Mija) to even acknowledge that is it at its core a morally wrong act. Even the victim's mother seems so well-composed and grievance-void of her daughter's tragedy. The society's moral compass is seriously not functioning here, another social tragedy.
Nevertheless, Mija may be old but she still tries to make ends meet and to gather the latest compensation amount (five million wons) by working as a routine maid who drops by the household of the super-mart owner to perform cleaning and care of her stroke-devastated father. While at her job, she appears to be chirpy and doesn't seem to be bothered about the lowly chores she has to perform. If you must know, one of her jobscope includes bathing the old man, who later attempts to seek sexual pleasures from Mija. This causes Mija to feel disrespected.
Her optimistic response to the above pessimism might be questionable, but she later returns to fulfill the old man's wishes. Here's the question in my mind: Did Mija gave in because she tried to tell herself to see it as her last opportunity to gain worldly pleasures (optimism in pessimism) or was it just to keep her job? I know I might sound outrageously crazy here but I find that the former fits the film's intended theme better because giving in just to keep her job is more of a pessimism built upon pessimism.
We get to observe Mija going through everything mentioned above as well as studying her lonely times by herself (through frequent handheld camerawork) as she sits below a tree and look at it all the day and observing a group of school boys playing soccer in school. The more intriguing scenarios are of her looking into the very science laboratory where the said sexual abuse had taken place for over six months, as well as her visiting the very site at a highway bridge over the river where the victim might have jumped off.
Mija observes and attempts to discover facts and inspirations in her life, we observe and attempt to study and understand Mija.
The ending is intended to be very much open where we see Mija fading away after her last actions of turning in her grandson (even this is vague if she'd really done so) and submitting her poem in absence to her class lecturer at the end of the class. In my opinion, the final scene of the camera showing scenes of the locations visited by Mija before being void of her presence while her last poem is being read as a voice-over narration is simply a raw beauty that I'd have never learn of if not for Lee's film.
In a world where poetic literature has been neglected and forgotten (which I think Lee has strong issues with as a literature artist), Poetry may not be an entertaining mainstream film, but it's a beautiful subtle piece of poem that reflects upon inspirations in life.
Even if it's a pessimistic one.