Written by Lee Chang-dong
Directed by Lee Chang-dong
South Korea, 2010
There are the aesthetic qualities of language – phonic, visual, etc. – and then there are the experiences and impulses that language is used to express. Poetry has, as an art form, traditionally sought to erase the distance between the two, to construct an artifice of language that will purely convey some aspect of the human condition – a notion that has been increasingly abandoned in our age of irony. When we collectively embraced air quotes, we embraced the distance between language and impulse, devaluing the idea of emotional expression.
Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry is a meditation on that distance. Resting on a series of layered tensions – between beauty and grief, between words and feelings, and between existence and memory – the film profoundly asks what seems like a deceptively naive question: Can acts of expression still be meaningful?
The question belongs to Yang Mija (Yoon Jeong-hee), an aging woman working as a caregiver to an elderly stroke victim (Kim Hira) while raising her teenage grandson (Lee David). Mija has begun to suffer from memory lapses; she forgets words, mostly nouns, but her doctor assures her that verbs will likely start to go soon as well. Feeling the weight of her deteriorating capacities, Mija enrolls in a poetry class and begins to attend readings, but struggles with the act of writing. Her struggles are compounded when she learns that her grandson was among a gang of boys that repeatedly gang raped a young girl, driving her to suicide, and that Mija and the other boys’ families will need to pay off the girl’s mother to avoid criminal charges.
The film uses both the settlement negotiations and the poetry readings are forums for the self-conscious and imprecise use of words. The negotiations purposefully obfuscate the horror of the girl’s death, and minimize her family’s grief and boys’ responsibility, while the poetry readings are exercises in aggrandizing the tritely beautiful (one of Poetry’s more clever devices is each poet offering more expression and reflection in their explanation of their poems than in the poems themselves). It is not just the juxtaposition of these forums that makes Poetry compelling though, but the film’s situating of those contrasts within Mija’s yearning to reach beyond her circumstances. She so badly wants to speak of a beauty that others appear able to touch, but that she can not.
That yearning takes subtle, unexpected forms on the face of Yoon Jeong-hee. The performance is purposefully melodramatic, but deftly so in terms of the character. Yoon’s Mija at first conveys a bright weariness, as if she wants nothing more than to be asked how she is doing, so that she can tell you she is fine. But as her trials intensify, that brightness dims, and what is left is devastation. As Mija watches her grandson blithely eat junk food and watch TV, she is unable to comprehend how he can be so unburdened by his actions. The depth of Mija’s gaze in those scenes trumps the superficial observations she records in her poetry notebook, although that notebook in turn becomes a critical tool when she uses its pages to pass blackmail notes to her employer.
The lingering mystery of Poetry is what are Mija’s failures of perception due to her onsetting Alzheimer’s, and what is she perceiving but failing to express, and whether there is a qualitative difference. In the film’s most heartbreaking passage, Mija visits the dead girl’s mother in the fields where she works to discuss the settlement. Mija chats with the mother about the ripening apricots, but never broaches the subject of her daughter. As Mija turns to leave, a look of disgust creeps across her face. Did she forget the purpose of her visit, or was she utterly unable to find the words to connect with the other woman? Could there be any such words?
‘Poetics’ can be a difficult concept to translate into cinema, but Poetry is visually delicate and mannered – as in the subtle color gradations of the opening pan shot – without being oppressively precious. The only images in the film calibrated to be affecting come in the films final moments, and those images are married to an act of compassion so hauntingly complete that it earns its sentiment.
Because of similar subject matter, and that both films were made by Korean directors, Poetry has garnered comparisons to Bong Joon-ho’s equally wonderful Mother. But such comparisons miss the point. While both films consider maternal weariness, Mother views it as a comically self-imposed mask covering violent instincts, while Poetry sees it as something closer to a state of grace. To read the ending of Poetry as believing in the transcendence of metaphysical spaces would be erroneous. Poetry knows that such transcendence is never possible, but it also knows that the need to express is so fundamentally human that we can never stop trying.