Words of Wisdom
by Michael Koresky
Dir. Lee Chang-dong, South Korea, Kino Releasing
What if the words won’t come? This is a problem that Mija, the 66-year-old protagonist of Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry must wrestle with. The question ends up taking multiple meanings as the film progresses. Mija, long a widow, who lives in a small apartment with just a grandson, has enrolled, in a fit of inspiration, in a poetry class—she has the proper spontaneous nature to be an artist, but not, as it turns out, the chops. Unable to let the writing flow out naturally from her personal experience of the everyday world, she overthinks every attempt, distrusts every impulse. However, words also fail Mija in a more functional sense—right from the beginning, when she visits a doctor to have diagnosed a prickling sensation in her right arm that she suspects is arthritis or neuralgia, she admits to finding that she increasingly forgets the names for things. The doctor is clearly concerned more about her memory than her tingling appendage, and though there is no talk of it for a long while of screen time, the moment hangs over the film ominously. Eventually, a diagnosis comes, expectedly to us, if not Mija: that seemingly unstoppable, barely treatable worldwide plague known as Alzheimer’s.
That Alzheimer’s still cannot officially be diagnosed pre-autopsy, at least in the routine, casual way presented here, may be lost on the filmmakers, but it hardly matters to the scope of the drama—Poetry, a remarkable study of age, class, loneliness, responsibility, art, and the illusory nature of being, is not a film about the disease, nor, mercifully, is it a film that uses the disease as a device or even metaphor (an easy enough thing to do considering that one of cinema’s longest running, headiest topics is the impermanence of memory). Rather, Poetry allows the threat of Alzheimer’s to exist as a very real character trait, part of this woman’s shifting emotional makeup. Lee Chang-dong charts Mija’s late-in-life transformation: we know what her sad endpoint will be, but Lee has constructed a far less predictable narrative around her, one that gives her the choice and power that her brain and body will soon deny her.
All this remains unspoken, subtextual—in typical Lee fashion, Poetry openheartedly narrativizes its themes but also keeps them close to its breast. In this sense, Poetry is not unlike another recent bravura film from South Korea, Bong Joon-ho’s marvelous Mother, an emotionally rich, classically told narrative of an aging woman whose life spins out of reason when her mentally retarded son is accused of a horrific crime. Mija also finds herself radically changing her life upon discovering that a loved one has been accused of involvement in some nefarious business. Like Mother’s protagonist, she is dowdy and working-class, struggling to make ends meet; yet Mija, as played by the lovely Jeong-hee Yoon, is more of an ingratiating, likable presence. Dressed in bright colors and sporting a Pollyanna smile, Mija is initially a winsomely spirited woman, even turning that first doctor’s visit into an optimistic encounter.
Lee establishes darkness on the horizon before we meet Mija: in the opening sequence, the limp corpse of a young girl floats down a rushing river, spotted by a group of children frolicking on a bank nearby. How the circumstances around this high school student’s death—a suicide, we soon discover—tie into the unfolding story of Mija is best left unexplained for those who haven’t seen the film (as in Mother, Poetry’s pleasures are largely wedded to the grace with which its narrative unfolds). The mystery itself is easily forgotten for a great deal of running time as the commanding screen presence of Jeong-hee Yoon more than keeps our attention, and she imbues Mija with a compelling weary ambivalence, whether she’s casually but energetically playing street badminton with grandson Wook, going about her menial duties as a housemaid for a stroke-afflicted geriatric, or struggling to scribble out a verse for her writing class. As a single elderly woman basically on her own, working part-time and living off government subsidy, Mija is rarely afforded respect: Wook, sprouting acne and a dirty smear of a pubescent moustache, gives her a surly cold shoulder, perhaps blaming her for his mother’s abandonment; neighbors and women at the local supermarket often don’t appear to listen to her when she speaks, sometimes ignoring her completely; her attempts at tapping into an inner artistry through poetry are likewise met with patronizing skepticism. A crucial plot turn finds Mija surrounded by a group of younger men, all fathers of Wook’s school peers, and the contempt they barely conceal for Mija’s stronger feminine sensitivity is palpable; in their presence she is humbled, but her silence speaks volumes, as does the way Lee places her in the frame, withered yet composed, at once present yet also dissolving into the background.
This is a woman already robbed of a voice; that she will also lose her thoughts is an unimaginable cruelty. Yet Lee never dwells on this tragedy, instead embroiling Mija in a complexly woven plot that grants her control over her decisions at a moment before she loses that control. Mija’s ultimate decisions in Poetry function as a moving correction to the blind, agonized foolishness that overtakes the protagonist of Mother, which leads her to a kind of purgatory. Where Mija’s heading is more ambiguous—her future has been cruelly, cosmically preordained. We know that soon enough she will lose faculty of her speech, then body; her family and friends (in this case already shadows) will be unrecognizable to her; her mind will become a sort of prison. For now Lee grants her supremacy.
“Nouns are most important,” a character says at one point, stated as though fact, amidst a classroom conversation about the engagement of words. It’s an almost Bressonian statement when applied to the cinema. While Lee might not offer such a stringent style, there’s an unforced purity to his filmmaking that doesn’t make room for much embellishment. For a film so attuned to character, and which ostensibly takes the pursuit of art in a violent world as its central through-line, Poetry is surprisingly plot-driven, lengthy but not given to flourish or elegiac cutaways. Even Mija’s final moment of poetic triumph is muted: right when she finds her words, she also sacrifices her own voice.