A woman takes up writing poems as a means of coping with her difficult grandson and the onset of Alzheimer’s — a description that conveys little hint of the subtle intelligence at work in Lee Chang-dong’s quietly haunting new picture. Calmer and less shattering than his masterly psychodrama “Secret Sunshine” (2007), “Poetry” is a deceptively gentle tale with a tender ache at its center, as well as a performance from Yun Jung-hee that lingers long in the memory. Solidifying Lee’s rep as one of South Korea’s most gifted writing-directing talents, pic will lean heavily on critical kudos to secure offshore sales.
After a prologue of unsettling stillness in which we see a body floating down the Han River, the film introduces Yang Mija (Yun), a beautiful woman in her 60s whose warm, open demeanor finds expression in the bright-colored floral prints and cute white hat she likes to wear. D.p. Kim Hyun-seok’s mobile camera follows Mija through a series of routines and errands around her suburban town: cleaning house for an elderly man whom she also bathes, to his evident pleasure; visiting a doctor who’s concerned by her recent memory lapses; taking care of her sullen, unresponsive grandson, Wook (Lee David); and, on a whim, signing up for a poetry class at the local community center.
As in “Secret Sunshine,” all this leisurely scene-setting lulls the viewer into a sense of security that’s ruptured by a sudden twist, one that explains the meaning of that earlier corpse. With Wook and five of his friends implicated in a monstrous crime, Mija is in desperate need of cash for a legal settlement — a mission she undertakes with no particular urgency, instead spending most of her time in search of the poetic inspiration that, she freely and touchingly admits, doesn’t come naturally to her.
Given the abundant potential for missteps into sappiness with this sort of premise, what’s notable here is the lack of sentimentality in Lee’s approach. At no point does “Poetry” devolve into a terminal-illness melodrama or a tale of intergenerational bonding; Wook remains a wretchedly ungrateful cipher, and his horrific actions are left chillingly unexplained. Mija looks and looks intently for the everyday beauty that will unlock her hidden talents, but Lee won’t let her or the viewer escape the ugliness that’s all around.
In his past films, including “Peppermint Candy” and “Oasis,” Lee has established himself as a fearless social critic and sympathetic observer of characters who, due to mental/physical disabilities or emotional/spiritual trauma, find themselves on the margins. “Poetry” presents a patriarchal society that, under a smiling veneer of concern, tries to contain its problems by throwing money at them. Mija — who has no money to give, only compassion — has no place in this culture. Repeatedly, she behaves in ways that inspire one’s embarrassed pity: opening her mouth at the wrong moment to ask an ignorant question, or abandoning a conversation to look at some nearby flowers. By film’s end, it’s clear she’s the sanest, healthiest person in town.
The use of poetry as both text and subtext makes the film feel a bit more prosaic and less cinematic than some of Lee’s recent efforts, somewhat betraying the novelist-turned-filmmaker’s literary origins. There are longueurs here — particularly the direct-address interviews with Mija’s poetry classmates — that could be trimmed, though overall this absorbing film feels considerably shorter than its 139 minutes.
Looking fabulous in her flamboyant wardrobe (designed by Lee Choong-yeon), Yun winningly embodies that pleasant, loopy, slightly-too-talkative grandmother everyone’s either encountered or been related to, imbuing the old woman with an uncloying joie de vivre and simple desire for human connection that cuts to the heart; in sadder moments, she does most of her acting with her eyes, which can make her look terribly vulnerable and alone. The graceful final passage, which comes close to fulfilling the promise of the title, is all the more poignant for the fact that the central character is heard but not seen.