Lee Chang-dong directs the story of Mija, an elderly lady who lives with an unappreciative grandson and glides through life with a trivial daily routine. She spends time with a man paralyzed by a stroke and looks after him for a small amount of money. After joining a poetry class, as the title suggests, Mija begins to question her life and tries and find meaning within it. This leads to a somewhat emotional and reminiscent journey for her. However, the discovery that she has Alzheimer’s disease begins to challenge her creative writing and a shocking revelation about her grandson tears her world apart.
Poetry is an emotional character study; very much in the style of Lee’s other work, where he often portrays characters with physical and/or mental problems. It does not dwell on the effects of Alzheimer’s disease or force anyone to sympathise – Mija’s loneliness is presented in a much more compassionate way than her suffering from the disease. And this affliction seems to come in the form of her grandson walking off in the middle of badminton or people not listening to her in a shop, not from the effects of her disease. This rings true to many because Lee places his artistic exploration right in the middle of the mundane parts of life; by doing this he gives meaning and context to his character study. This makes Poetry very similar to Lee’s ‘Peppermint Candy’ which, despite its reverse narrative, plays out in the same fashion. In this film he often lingers on Mija’s face during crucial scenes, even if she is just listening to someone else, this emphasises his point that Mija is the only important part of the film.
Korean cinema is renowned for both its stylised, brutally violent revenge films and its slow, overly-artistic dramas. Poetry obviously falls in the second category and has many similarities with the 2009 release ‘Mother’ by Bong Joon-ho (who rose to fame worldwide with ‘The Host’). Both of these films have an elderly lady in a leading role and show the fragility as well as strength within these women. At the beginning of ‘Mother’, Bong depicts his elderly lady dancing carefree in a field which contrasts with the hard times she will later have to face because of her son; much like the grandson in Poetry. The reminiscent element of Poetry also lies in the fact the lead actress came out of retirement to star in the film – creating a gap between her younger self as an actress and herself in the present day.
Lee Chang-dong’s artistic skill shows its full potential in certain scenes. Some great examples of where Lee shines are in moments such as when Mija’s hat flies off her head and glides neatly into the water below, followed closely by her sitting in rain shower – an intensely visual scene. One criticism of Lee’s films could be his focus on the negative aspects of life but he has often proved that the stunning presentation of his work actually makes them tributes to the beauty of life. Also by his emphasis on there being no resolution to life: love does not conquer all, authority does catch up with you and money doesn’t solve everything.
The scenes with Mija and her grandson raise a very true issue for many parents and give a contrast between the young and old. Her grandson does not appreciate the effort she puts into looking after him and instead of gratitude shows delinquent behaviour and ignorance. Poetry is really an ode to the elderly; this becomes particularly apparent when a woman in the poetry class talks about how much her grandmother meant to her. Lee Chang-dong does a fantastic job of creating a character that can truly be sympathised with and overall this film is a great achievement.
-Audio commentary by Lee Chang-dong
-The Legendary Actress: Yun Jeong-hee
-Interview with Nae-sang Ahn
Out now on Blu-ray and DVD