Perceptively heartrending and inquisitively humanistic, Poetry is an an absorbing, poignant drama; a perfectly paced and performed character study; and a deceptively serene tale with an ache at its center that lingers long in the memory. From Alzheimer’s, rape, and suicide has arisen true poetry.
Mi-ja, an aging woman faced with a crippling medical diagnosis and the discovery of a heinous family crime while raising her grandson, finds strength and purpose when she enrolls in a poetry class. These are tidy and familiar narrative strands: the crimes of the young; the trials of the old; the lone individual fighting for truth and decency. But true to the title, Poetry (winner of Cannes’ Best Screenplay) mixes them in a way like never before.
Writer-director Lee Chang-dong (Secret Sunshine) is a gifted, thoughtful filmmaker, unafraid to tackle difficult subjects. He’s principally concerned with rendering emotions that seem inexpressible, exploring beauty in the same way as a philosopher: its transcendent nature, its all-permeating presence. A select pantheon of directors – Akira Kurosawa, Yasujirō Ozu, Satyajit Ray – have made great art out of the pain, suffering, and aspirations of ordinary people. With Poetry, Lee evinces the ethereal qualities of his counterparts and makes a case to be added to the list.
Calmer and less shattering than Lee’s previous work, Poetry is well-observed, devoid of the ultra-violence often associated with Korean cinema, and sensitive almost to a fault. Like a great sonnet, it challenges you to ponder it, to wrestle with it even as it washes over you. The title correctly insinuates Lee’s fixation with words, how lexicon defines our lives, how our own voices sometimes close over us. Yoon Jeong-hee is simply superb as a woman who holds steadfastly to her dignity and empathy, even in the face of unspeakable tragedy. Her gentle gaze, tender pose, and quiet gestures transform themselves into stanzas as they rhyme with Lee’s creative flowering.
Long and languid, touching and devastating, valiant and moving without ever stooping to melodrama, Poetry is a nuanced and subtle psychodrama, a masterful study of the moral compass and subtle empowerment of an elderly woman. Because it offers no easy answers to its complex central conflict, those with an eye for reading between the lines can find layers of meaning. Like the flowing waters in its opening shot, Poetry carries us along slowly and unrelentingly. The imperfect shagginess – a sort of impressionist existentialism – is part of what gives Poetry its effect.
Lee manages to sum up all his themes during the final few minutes. Anyone who starts a film going to poetry classes is eventually going to come up with a poem; the one Mija finally delivers will rip your heart to shreds. With Poetry, beauty, doused in a lucid grace, comes to us unexpectedly, bringing a lump to the throat that’s impossible to swallow.