Humanising, touching and beautiful, Poetry (2010), directed by Lee Chang-dong ("Secret Sunshine", KOFFIA 2010), is a deeply real film that engages the heart on many levels. This artfully-constructed film lures you in with its sense of realism that just isn't showcased enough in film.
Meet Yang Mi-ja (Yoon Jung-hee), a lost and lonely elder in search of meaning and truth in her life. Her situation is not a desirable one; she takes care of her distance daughter's deviant son, Jong Wook (Lee David), while she works part-time caring for a stroke victim named Elder Kang (Kim Hee-ra). Having discovered that she has early signs of Alzheimer's disease, Yang seeks out the medium of poetry in the hope that she will find meaning and truth in her life.
The tragic nature of Yang's existence really dawns when we begin to understand her home life. She lives with her irresponsible grandson, from whom she has no authority over. His aloof presence causes her distress and when she discovers that he and other boys were involved in an inexcusable act with a female classmate, resulting in the young girl taking her own life, she is unable to come to terms with it. She becomes emotionally engaged with the deceased girl's story but struggles to express any personal meaning behind it. This is a woman whose tender outlook on life is so strongly countered by the people around her that she ultimately questions her own existence.
Yang feels emotionally disconnected from the world and the people she encounters. It is for this reason she signs up for a poetry class, by the end of which she is to complete one poem. This is the perfect metaphor for the film and Yang's personal journey of self-discovery. The concrete things in her life are fading; objects and people are becoming increasingly disassociated from her sense of the real. This occurs as a result of her alienation from the objective world, a point poetically paralleled in her initial symptoms of Alzheimer's as common nouns begin to evade her recall of them. It comes as no surprise that Yun took the prize for Best Performance by an Actress at the 2010 Asia Pacific Screen Awards.
Her poetry class teaches her that one's reactions and perceptions of everyday things are the foundation of poetry. To create a poem she must re-examine the things in her life and view them with a new perspective in order to find something beautiful and personally meaningful. Yang's journey is exactly this and, as we are drawn to the film's intellectual and heartening ending, one cannot help but reflect deeply as the slow water currents of the last scene linger.
One of the first things to note on the style of Poetry is the visuals. This is an example of modern realism in Korean cinema, shots linger and subtly shake as we are forced to examine every scene and its happenings. Like the film's themes, the visual experience calls for inspection, thought and feeling. This style complements the film's intent as each scene is loaded with feeling and emotion. We feel like a true spectator, watching the events unfold, while being asked to question our own reactions to the screen. Like Yang re-examining an apple to try see the world in a different light, the film makes its poetic message visually through cinematic realism.
Poetry struck me on many levels. It's not a typical mainstream film and I found that to be delightfully refreshing. It is a beautiful story told in a convention that sometimes leads itself to be dismissed by larger audiences. Watch Poetry and discover how film can truly be a beautiful creature.
Christopher J. Wheeler writes about Korean Film at HanCinema.net, a partner of the Korean Film Festival in Australia.