Film Review: Poetry

Lee Chang-dong’s perceptive drama about a woman facing the onset of Alzheimer’s as well as a torrid family crisis is keenly acted but meandering.
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A smile can hide everything, as is shown in Poetry, a thoughtful drama from Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-dong. His protagonist, Mija (veteran Yun Jung-hee taking her first role in 16 years), is a woman in her 60s who is technically just getting by but seems able to avoid questions by bringing a smile to just about any occasion. Her first appearances are surprisingly chirpy and ebullient, as she goes from the cramped apartment she shares with her loutish teen grandson, Wook (Lee David, sublimely vacant), to her part-time job as maid for an older man recovering from a stroke. It’s not the easiest life, but Mija, with her sunny demeanor and bright outfits, seems perfectly resigned to it.

The hammer blows that follow are quiet but no less devastating. There is Mija’s discovery that her new tendency to forget certain words is actually the sign of early-stage Alzheimer’s. She also has to contend with the discovery that Wook and several of his school friends are implicated in a horrendous crime that the other parents want to keep quiet by paying hush money Mija doesn’t have to the victim.

Part of the genius of Lee’s screenplay is that these melodramatic developments don’t take center stage. Instead, they fade to the background in order to follow Mija’s late-found desire to learn how to write poetry. While the elements of her life seem to be unraveling, Mija concentrates on following her teacher’s instructions to look deep and hard at everything around her. She stares into breeze-whispered tree branches and concentrates on pieces of fruit in order to divine their essence and distill it into her poetry.

For all her charm and good humor, Mija’s life appears to be one without friends and not much to say in terms of family. (Her daughter and Wook’s mother has moved away for work.) Lee’s challenge, and one that the film ably meets, is to take that solitude, and her slowly growing desperation, and not let it devolve into hyperbole.

The film brings a minimum of style to the proceedings, very much in line with many current less-is-more Korean dramas, leaving the burden on the shoulders of Yun’s potently subtle performance and Lee’s perceptive writing. The desperate importance of language is simply but beautifully rendered in Mija’s search for something to write her poetry about just as her faculties are failing her. (A doctor’s cool notation that she’ll forget nouns first, and then verbs, is one of the more quietly crushing moments.)

Lee’s reserve, however, sometimes hinders the viewer’s ability to comprehend the catastrophic changes in Mija’s life. His refusal to succumb to overt theatricality in her new appreciation of nature is at times commendable but also distancing. His slightly overlong film’s tendency to wander doesn’t help matters, either. As in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky, we see just how far through desperate circumstances a character’s bright outlook can take them, but unlike in that film, we don’t quite get a handle on how or why that brightness developed, even if we can see all too well the emptiness that it’s trying to cover up.