To make poetry, one needs a quiet evening, focus and the right inspiration. Inspiration, however, is a cruel mistress. It can hide from the writer, shadowed by their own flaws and the flaws of those around them. Poetry, the 2010 Korean film just now being released in Canada, tries to emulate that experience of looking for inspiration in a chaotic world. This is a film that likes to spend its time around meadow sand valleys, contemplating the unrealized horrors of the world within it. If only it could look outward and realize the slight horror of its extended running time.
The movie is about Yang Mija, a chic sixty-year-old woman, suffering from Alzheimer’s who decides to take a poetry class. Her goal is to write one poem by the end of the course. Yet, it is hardly that simple. The film actually begins with a suicide of a young girl, a girl who knew Yang’s neglectful grandson intimately. Yang quickly discovers her grandson is a criminal and has to adjust to this while continuing her poetry quest.
The emotional gravity of Poetry comes from its actors and the director. Jeong-hie Yun is a marvel here, and proves that despite a 16-year-hiatus she is still one of the best actresses in Korea. Her performance as Yang Mija is one filled with subtle moments. The scene where she discovers her grandson’s crime is fantastic, as she immediately leaves the room and walks outside. She stares at a set of flowers to find some inner truth in them to explain how this could happen. This is all done through small gestures and responses. These are movements that people barely notice when talking to their friends, forget a 50-foot screen. And Yun does it like it’s second nature.
The rest of the cast only matches up to Yun because of the direction. Chang-dong Lee, the director, has them move at a precise speed and rhythm that unifies the film. There’s a hesitation to the other characters as they attempt to figure out what Yang is thinking, and try to bypass her.
It works well enough that viewers will feel like they’re a fly on the wall to real life. A real life far more graphic than the one in which they reside. This is compounded by the lack of a soundtrack. The score is all ambience and natural buzz. However, there’s no background chatter or ‘city noise’. Pay attention and it does sound produced, though it adds such clarity and atmosphere that it doesn’t matter. When Yang is looking at flowers or studying fruit, the noise makes these scenes feel right. Music here would have made simple moments feel unnecessarily profound.
Despite all this, Poetry desperately needs an editor. Before release, someone should have taken a red pen, crossed out some scenes and tightened the film. There are subtle moments that linger too long, though more egregious are the explicit moments that would have been better done behind closed doors. There is an uncomfortable sex scene which adds nothing to the film. Furthermore, scenes where Yang is walking down the street, bemused, or looking for inspiration are fine the first and second times around. But it gets tiring to see her constantly stopping along the path to her goal.
It is understandable why they chose to do that. These lingering moments allow the viewer to learn and examine the world around them the same way Yang does. The problem is they’re not entertaining. Staring at fruit is aggravating on its own. It doesn’t get any more interesting to watch someone else do it.
Poetry is driven by the talent of its director and lead actor, and for the most part that is all it needs to be a good film. Yun is a joy to watch, and Lee knows how to tie a movie together. The ending is bound to astound viewers due to its surprise and lack of intensity. The lack of intensity is a good thing. The plot is resolved the same way it was started, without anyone realizing the importance of it.
Cast: Jeong-hie Yun, Da-wit Lee, Nae-sang Ahn
Directed by: Chang-dong Lee
Top image: A scene from Poetry. Courtesy Mongrel Media.