In order to properly convey how good Poetry is, please, indulge me a story. I first saw the film last October, at a press screening during the London Film Festival. As a newcomer to the city I was somewhat lost, and desperately trying to find Soho House, the venue for the screening. Round and round in circles I went, asking for directions from any old stranger but still clueless as to where exactly I was meant to be. Eventually, by pure chance, I located the building, but was already a few minutes late. Puffing and panting after an ascent up the stairs, I was kindly let in, and now had to find a seat. The tiny screening room was pitch black, not even slightly illuminated by the screen, so I spent the following minute disturbing my fellow critics, brushing my hand over their heads to try and see if their seats were available. Embarrassed enough already, I made my way to the front row and took the first seat I established as empty. This was an unwise move as in the darkness I could not make out a sign declaring the seat broken. CLUNK, it went, as it gave way beneath me. I was lodged, firmly, into the crevice now newly created, and I quickly discovered that I would not be moving any time soon. The audience was impatient with me; the film had started, and we were missing vital plot information. The screen towers over the front row so my eyes took a while to adjust, but I soon resigned myself from the idea of moving. I stayed there, for the entire 139-minute running time, and came out in severe pain (I went through physiotherapy in college), yet didn’t really mind. I realized that, despite everything, I hadn’t taken my eyes of the screen once during this deeply moving and meditative drama, which, while overly dramatic at times, had compelled perhaps the least dignified audience member it will ever entertain. If that’s not a recommendation then I don’t know what is, but I have a word count to reach, so let’s continue…
Poetry tells the story of Yang Mija (Jeong-hie Yun), an aging woman who joins a poetry class after discovering she is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. She works as a carer for an elderly disabled man (who abuses bath-time privileges) and also looks after her grandson Wook (Lee David). One day she learns that Wook has been implicated in the suicide of a female classmate, who was repeatedly gang raped over a six month period, by the boy and his five friends. Now Mija, upon learning about herself and the world around her, must face this terrible truth, and attempt to overcome the devastation…
If that sounds too much like melodrama, then don’t worry – it’s played completely naturally, and the low-key approach is hugely effective. Poetry is a delicate and sensitive film, bursting with emotion, and even from my dilapidated state I found it utterly engaging. It helps that the film is partially based on the true case of a schoolgirl who had been raped by a gang of classmates, but Changdong – rather than directly translating the news story – took the idea and formed his own narrative around it; a narrative about nature, beauty and self-discovery. Much like his previous feature Secret Sunshine (2007), Changdong’s film is a masterclass in observation, and its stillness will reward patient viewers.
But the real reason to recommend Poetry is for its dedicated lead performance, delivered by the stunning Jeong-hie, who had been absent from the screen for 16 years before taking this role. Changdong drew her out of retirement with a layered and complex part, and she’s clearly relishing the ability to work with such challenging material. Her soft-spoken expressiveness is entirely captivating, and you’ll warm to her in the way you would to a classic grandma; y’know, the sort who gives you extra pocket money and too much access to the cookie jar. The milk of human kindness truly runs through her veins, and it’s been a long time since I cared about a character so much as a person, and an individual. Changdong is a humanist, clearly, and Jeong-hie has realized his vision with startling depth of character.
Korea has been producing some amazing cinema lately – normally in the form of revenge thrillers like I Saw The Devil (Kim Ji-woon, 2010) – and this beautiful film can join ranks with the best of them. It’s a dextrous, lucid and morally considered piece of work, asking bold questions about society but never supposing to have the answers. Its pace is slow, and to some that will be off-putting, but it all builds toward a final shot which speaks volumes for the human condition. It’s well worth tracking down.
Poetry is out in cinemas 29th July 2010.
Director: Chang-dong Lee
Writer: Chang-dong Lee
Stars: Jeong-hie Yun, Nae-sang Ahn, Hira Kim
Runtime: 139 min
Country: South Korea