It takes approximately 10 seconds for one to be reminded that this is a Lee Chang-Dong movie. From the opening shot of a dead teenage girl floating in a river, Poetry is difficult to watch not because of the expectations of “arthouse” cinema. If anything, he makes some of the most accessible art films of the past ten years. The problem is that his work is extremely taxing, and this film is no exception. However, as opposed to his previous film, Secret Sunshine, this one is more of a slow-burner, perhaps a intentional reflection of the disease being depicted.
In nearly every review I’ve read of this film, someone points out how the film could easily become a melodramatic mess. The protagonist, Yang Mija is a 66 year old woman raising her grandson. He is predictably distant and cold to her, the way any teenager would be in a disjointed home. However, it is explained that the girl who killed herself was being repeatedly raped by Mija’s grandson and his group of friends. The fathers of these boys join together and make a plan to settle with the victim’s mother without involving the police. The plan requires a parental figure of each child to give a large sum of money, which Mija can’t afford.
There’s several other threads involved in the film, perhaps the biggest pitch for the film being that it deals with the development of Mija’s Alzheimer’s. Additionally, she joins a community poetry class, which inspires her to pen a poem, which becomes an essential part of the film’s finale. There’s also Mija’s maid job, which manifests poorly (in my opinion) in a scene where she acknowledges the lust of an immobile elderly man. The script doesn’t take any other wrong turns, though and if it did, it would feel comfortable in the hands of Yoon Jeong-hee, who deserves a great deal of credit for the film’s success. Her performance is understated as almost every critic will tell you, but more importantly, there is something ever heartbreaking about the way she conducts herself. It’s not a “poor old lady” routine necessarily, as her character refuses to accept the severity of her illness.
It seems reductive to categorize Lee’s work as “human drama” but admittedly, he doesn’t really attempt to try anything else. His style is competent, maybe even workman-like and it never calls much attention to itself. There’s signs of the Dardeenes, perhaps the best superficial comparison (both visually and in terms of narrative) but Lee’s work seems less disjointed, more willing to explain its context. I guess this all sounds like criticism, but it sets up the film’s finale kind of brilliantly. The character of Mija seemingly disappears. She leaves flowers and a poem for the professor of her poetry class, but she does not attend. As the professor reads the poem, the camera looks for her in her usual places but it never finds her. The camera returns to where it was at the film’s start.
There’s a lot of wonderful things about Poetry, it’s a fascinating film to watch because it requires the viewer to dedicate their attention to one character. If one doesn’t sympathize with Mija (for whatever case) it is probably not very interesting. It’s a film, above all else, about dealing with grief. Secret Sunshine is about dealing with grief as well, but in that film, the protagonist seems to be working against new obstacles constantly hindering her ability to live. Poetry is more of a constant upward struggle. It concludes with a moment of pure beauty, though. It does not validate the way the characters have conducted themselves, nor does it disown their struggles. There are no simplistic concepts like redemption to condone Mija’s decision regarding her grandson. Lee does not intend to provide answers or solutions, just reflect reality.