English Title: Poetry
Original Title: Shi
Country: South Korea
Director/Writer: Lee Chang-dong
Cinematography: Kim Hyun-Soek
South Korean cinema dramatist Lee Chang-dong’s fifth feature, POETRY charts the turning of events around a chic 66-year-old grandmother Mi-ja (Yun), scraping by government welfare and raising her school-age grandson Jong-kook (Lee) all by herself in their boxy tenement room, whose nascent sortie into poetry is interlaced with a horrific act (ominously foreshadowed by the film’s rural opening shot), compensation and redemption will come a long way in company with her first poem comes into full bloom.
POETRY takes leisure in Mi-ja’s languid pace, a young-at-heart elegant lady, earns some extra money as a part-time housekeeper, ministering to a miserly, stroke-stricken elderly man Mr. Kang (Kim Hui-ra), also she shows inchoate symptoms of Alzheimer’s, starting by forgetting nouns like “wallet”, “bus station”, a hammer blow to someone whose passion in poetry has just been reignited, but Mija keeps it to herself, because she has something more urgent to do, to obtain the compensation money for a mother whose daughter, a classmate of Jong-kook, has just committed suicide because of chronically suffering from a fate worse than death, guess who is involved?
Mi-ja is silently taken aback by the self-seeking, callous amorality emanated from other parents of those involved, and the school’s keeping-mum policy. She takes it on herself to find redemption for those delinquent wrongdoers, attending a church mass for the girl, visiting the bridge where she jumps, and cluelessly coping with the incongruous co-existence between the beauty which germinates poetry and the vice that consumes those around her, until her own conscience secretively pervades in with a gesture that might right the wrong in a corrupt, patriarchal society, where poetry is dying like innocent young lives, will she follow suit?
A slow-burner chaperoned by Lee’s beguilingly subtle approach in weaving poetic signposts into the quotidian, disheartening impersonality which renders acute through Mi-ja’s interactions with others, the polite but unsympathetic fellow parents, the standoffish hospital doctor, Mr. Kang’s seemingly genial daughter-in-law, to say nothing of the ingrate Jong-kook, one of her own blood. Lee’s pessimist take on humanity only lightens up a peg or two during the poem recitals and the poetry class for amateurs in which Mi-ja takes part, although it is a moribund art, poetry can better ourselves, we can understand Lee’s quiet, touching plea.
POETRY welcomes legendary actress Yun Jeong-hie’s heroic return after a 15-year-absence to the silver screen, and Yun totally abandons herself to a character what Lee has tailored for her, a petite, demure lady slowly becomes disenchanted by circumstances that shatter her equilibrium, test her integrity, but also catalyze her artistic inspiration, teeming with poignancy, nuances, and intrepidity (for the sex scenes, playing off against an equally gallant veteran Kim Hui-ra, mimics a vividly impaired physicality of a man who foolhardily holds onto his remaining days with his pathetic manhood). In the end, Lee considerately concocts an ambiguous finale in the wisps of subjective shots, attendant with the poem “Agnes’ song”, voiced first by Mi-ja then segues by the dead girl Agnes, traversing their usual haunts and adumbrates Mi-ja’s own vanishingly mysterious whereabouts in the aftermath, a haunting moral tale compellingly grafted onto the tricky, elusive poetic soil, Lee Chang-dong’s POETRY is a marvel striving on its own strength.