For the past few years, South Korean cinema has made its mark with gritty crime stories and outlandish horror thrillers. For the most part, they’ve been quite the success stateside, at least critically if not commercially. This has, however, created an unfortunate stereotype around Korean films: that they must, in some form or another, feature grisly violence. But even though Chang-dong Lee’s Poetry involves a death as part of a subplot, it couldn’t be any further from the crime or horror trends that have swept up his contemporaries.
Though the film opens with a suicide, Lee’s film is not meant to accelerate one’s pulse. The death that begins the film plays but a small part in the limited, yet languid tale of self-discovery. Yang Mija (Jeong-hie Yun) is an elderly woman living in a small town with her grandson. Upon discovering that she has early signs of Alzheimer’s, she forgoes treatment, and enrolls herself in a poetry class, only to soon discover a rather unpleasant secret in her family.
As a story, the whole thing moves at a pace that borders on glacial. Lee is clearly striving to let the story unfold at a pace that suits its protagonist. Yet even though this leads to any number of spots where you may wander off, the piece as a whole does build to a quietly satisfying conclusion. At the same time, I wish he had kept the pacing the same but simply made the film about 30 minutes shorter; the same emotional goal could have easily been reached. I don’t mean to sound like a stereotypical member of the instant gratification generation, and I love many long films. But those films seem to earn it. With Poetry, the pacing, which was obviously meant to be reserved and contemplative, risks dipping into boredom. Lee never allows this to happen, but Poetry does, especially in its first half, teeter dangerously on the border between methodical and dull.
What holds it all together, though, is Ms. Yun, who gives a lovely, understated, and graceful performance as a woman trying to find herself in a world that is starting to leave her behind. This isn’t a terribly flashy piece of acting, but Yun is always interesting to watch, never letting her character’s out-of-touch nature become cloying or irritating. Mija is not a cartoon of an old woman; she is a fully developed human being who demands our attention, even though her goal – to break through her creative struggle and write a poem – may seem trivial. The screenplay lets this element develop so naturally that by the time it comes to a close, it’s hard not to be touched, albeit from a distance.
The key subplot, which involves Mija’s grandson, is the element that doesn’t quite gel, at least when it comes down to specifics. Given the severity of what is going on in the background, the reactions from just about everyone involved don’t seem strong enough. A different, less inflammatory secret (or at least one from further back in time) would have suited the movie’s aims better. What we’re left with never feels as though it reaches a proper resolution physically (though it does thematically).
But even though the film have its problems along the way, it is ultimately a journey worth taking. Yun’s delicate and beautiful performance is worth it, even though the film around her isn’t quite as well-executed. One can only hope that Mr. Lee and Ms. Yun will soon reunite on another project, one where director and actress are on the same level. The result, I imagine, would be cinematic poetry.