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Review: ‘Poetry’

Yun Jung-hee stars as Mija in Lee Chang-dong's

Credit: Kino

Above: Yun Jung-hee stars as Mija in Lee Chang-dong's "Poetry."


KPBS film critic Beth Accomando reviews the SOuth Korean film "Poetry."


The Korean film "Poetry" (opening May 5 at Landmark's Ken Cinema) had its San Diego premiere at the San Diego Asian Film Foundation's Spring Showcase. It now gets a well-deserved theatrical run. You can listen to my radio review.

First impressions can be very important in a film. Lee Chang-dong opens his latest film with an idyllic scene at a river in his native South Korea. The sounds of water flowing and children playing in the sunshine trick us into a sense of calm. But then one of the children notice something floating down stream. It turns out to be the body of a young girl and that's when Lee bring up the title, "Poetry." That contrast sets the tone for the film.

It takes Lee a little time before he wraps his story back around to the dead girl but he does so eventually and with elegant purpose and design. The focus of the film is Mija (played exquisitely by veteran actress Yun Jung-hee), a 66-year-old woman who lives off of her pension and part time work as a maid for a wealthy client. Mija goes to the hospital complaining of tingling in her arm but the doctor is more concerned with her inability to recall simple words.

Mija is in the early stages of Alzheimer's. She's also raising a surly grandson. For relief she signs up for a poetry class, which is ironic since she is seeking to learn a new form of expression just as she is losing the ability to use words. The teacher inspires her by explaining that everyone has a poem in them.

The key, he says, is being able to look at the world and see it with fresh eyes. So Mija looks to nature, to flowers, and to fruits fallen on the ground. She thinks poetry is meant to be about lovely things. But as she's exposed to horrific events she discovers that ugly things may also be the source of inspiration. Part of what the film is about is Mija's transformation from a slightly flighty and frivolous woman to one much more conscious of her moral obligations and humanity.

Photo caption: Director Lee Chang-dong.

Photo credit: Kino

Director Lee Chang-dong.

As Lee suggests in his opening, the horrific can exist alongside the beautiful. In fact all of Lee's films have revealed a gift for making artistically stunning films about tragic and bleak topics. This makes his films difficult to pigeonhole or reduce down to a tagline. And all of these things make his films difficult to release in the U.S. "Poetry" is the first of his films to play outside a festival in San Diego. His earlier "Peppermint Candy" and "Oasis" both played at UCSD's now defunct San Diego International Film Festival.

"Poetry," like his previous films, tells us about Korean culture without seeming to make that the subject. In the film we get a snapshot of Korean society and life. Mija is made fun of for wearing kitschy clothes that attempt to mask her poverty. Then when she goes off to a farming area we see a much harsher lifestyle than her own. And in her poetry class, people talk about beautiful moments in their life like the joys of getting one's own place even if it's a tiny one-bedroom apartment.

We also get a sense of a culture where males commit crimes against women and then have an easy time covering them up. Mija discovers that her grandson was part of a group of boys that had repeatedly raped the young girl whose body was found floating in the river. It was the boys' actions that had apparently driven her to suicide. The fathers of the boys, not wanting to ruin their sons' futures, decide to cover up the crime by paying the dead girl's mother to keep quiet.

Photo caption: Veteran actress Yun Jung-hee stars in "Poetry."

Photo credit: Kino

Veteran actress Yun Jung-hee stars in "Poetry."

But Mija starts to look at the world differently. She starts to identify with the dead girl and her mother, and to rebel. She decides that letting the men cover up the crimes and ignore the consequences is not the right thing to do. And that protecting her grandson from just punishment sends the wrong message.

Lee's "Poetry" is not a beautiful film in conventional terms but there is a transcendence in his filmmaking that is breathtaking and deeply moving. His film, like his main character, may seem flighty and meandering at times but like Mija the film becomes focused and determined to say something meaningful and artistic.

Companion viewing: "Peppermint Candy," "Oasis," "Secret Sunshine"

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