Poetry is another amazing film from writer-director Chang-dong Lee, the filmmaker that brought to us Secret Sunshine, a movie that impressed me deeply when I saw it at NYFF in 2007.
Both Secret Sunshine and Poetry are centered on the lives of women who find themselves alone caring for a child. You see almost the entire gamut of human feeling in their personal stories, and Lee extracts incredible performances from his lead actresses. Through their lives, he criticizes a conservative society which still relies on traditional strictures that are coming apart at the seams. A society that, flush with a decent standard of living and modernity, pays lip service to family values.
I have to tell you some of what happens. Spoiler alert.
Poetry is the story of Mija, played by the amazing Jeong-hee Yoon, an elegant older lady who likes to wear cute hats and chintzy dresses. She is stuck caring for her boorish teenage grandson all by herself, while her divorced daughter is in another city. You couldn't tell from her delicacy and poise, but she has to earn a living by taking care of an elderly man with a stroke, whom she bathes and cleans up after. She may be sweet, but she is no wallflower.
Mija has a mild disposition and is given to small flights of fancy, such as claiming that she and her daughter are best friends. She relies on evasion, no doubt to dispel the funk she'd be in if she took a long hard look at her life. She is diagnosed with incipient Alzheimer's but she ignores the symptoms. She decides to take a poetry class at the cultural center of her small town, because, as she says, she is the kind of person who has flowers in her heart. The class is given by the most incompetent poetry teacher of all time. Everything he says to his poor students is a terrible cliche, and he gives them flowery but vague advice. Soon Mija takes her little notebook everywhere and tries to come up with poems. She searches in vain for "poetic inspiration" by staring at trees and apples, and, as the teacher instructed, by trying to find poetry in the filthy kitchen sink, courtesy of her sullen, ungrateful, odious blob of a grandchild.
It doesn't come to her.
Meanwhile, it turns out that the boy and his friends, kids that look like your garden variety teenage mutant, gang rape a girl repeatedly at school, provoking her suicide.
In order not to jeopardize their futures, the parents of the boys try to settle with the victim's family. The police are too lazy to investigate and the school will do anything to avoid scandal. Apparently, hush money is the customary way to get out of these teenage predicaments, which are dealt with in a "boys will be boys" sort of way by the young fathers of these kids (the mothers are absent from the discussion).
Problem is, Mija, the sole woman at the parental meetings, can't come up with the money. She lives off her tiny pension and by taking care of the crippled old man.
The fathers, who could be her sons, think she is loopy. The proverbial respect for your elders is gone. She is the only one who is deeply shocked and mortified by the news.
Mija is in a dire predicament, but she keeps going to her poetry classes. She joins an amateur poetry reading night. Lee keeps going back and forth between Mija's harrowing reality (her time at home with her entitled, slovenly grandson is quietly horrible -- a total breakdown of intergenerational communication), with scenes at the poetry class. Lee leaves one of the main turning points of the movie to settle on an extended scene at the weekly amateur poetry reading. We have just witnessed the nadir of human indifference and calculation, only to be fully (and hilariously) immersed in a world of billowing sentimental kitsch. Of course one wonders, how can the same society be so callous and so maudlin at the same time? Isn't sentimentality really a route of escape from hard reality? No wonder it is such a hit in places where people live difficult lives. Somehow, one never thinks of Scandinavians as sentimental. But the Third World? Corn Central. This is why l loathed Slumdog Millionaire with a passion bordering on the homicidal. Because it was a crock of corn about desperate poverty.
South Korea is not the Third World, and Mija is not poor, but she is struggling. In this middle class society, wealth breeds indifference to the suffering of those who don't have it. The mother of the dead girl is a simple peasant who works in the fields, and thus, easily manipulated with the promise of money. Then there is the disconnection between Korean family values and the actual behavior of families. If family is so important, why abandon your own child? Why neglect your ailing father or take advantage of your elderly mother? What is it about the endless diarrhea of video games and idiot TV programs that turns adolescents into sociopaths? Where are the parents?
I started wondering why we were spending so much time listening to terrible poetry, but Lee allows Mija's dilemma to ebb and flow, and deepen in time, as moral dilemmas do everywhere except in Hollywood films, where they are usually met with inhuman certainty. I gotta tell you, watching foreign movies is a very useful exercise in purifying ourselves of the dreck that we are conditioned to expect from plots and characters. We are so deluded.
Anyway, Mija is ambivalent. On the one hand, she acts the way family loyalty demands, and acquiesces to the needling of the other parents, because that is the way things are, but on the other, she goes through her process, and through evasion, as well as calculation, she slowly inches towards action. In this, she is similar to the protagonist of that other amazing and much more perverse Korean film, Mother, but Mija is the reverse image of that mother. She has moral qualms.
Nothing prepared me for the monumental shift in tone in the third act, when Mija finally decides to act in a manner according to her heart. By the end of the movie, she gets to write her poem. This may be the only time where I have ever been moved to tears by a poem in a movie. No sentimentality, but truth.
I hope you get to see this extraordinary film.