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South Korea 2010


Lee Chang-dong

Yoon Jung-hee
Lee Da-wit
Kim Hee-ra
Ahn Nae-sang
Kim Yong-taek
Kim Hye-jeong
Kim Jong-goo
Park Myeong-sin
Min Bok-gi
Park Woo-yeol
Lee Jong-yeol
Hong Seong-beom

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Story: Yang Mi-ja (Yoon Jung-hee) is a 66-year old grandmother who lives in a small flat with her grandson Jong-wook (Lee Da-wit). She is earning her money through social welfare and by being the housemaid for an elderly man. When Mi-ja one day gets out of hospital after a check-up a man is waiting for her and tells her that he is the father of one of Jong-wook's classmates and that he and four other fathers have to talk with her about a certain incident. It turns out that Jong-wook and five of his friends, with whom he spends every single minute of his free time, have raped a girl at their school for over six months until she eventually commited suicide. In her diary she has written down what she experienced and now the fathers want to pay some sort of settlement to the dead girl's mother so that the police doesn't need to be involved in this. Mi-ja doesn't know how to deal with this revelation about her grandson. At the same time she going to a poetry seminar where she learns to see beauty in the world. However, considering all that is happening around her this doesn't seem to be an easy task.

Review: Director Lee Chang-dong is one of the most outstanding and important directors of Korean cinema. The cultural value of his socia-critical works "Peppermint Candy" or "Oasis" aside I was never really sure why Lee was so well-received and applauded by critics. Without a doubt the themes of Lee's movies are far superior to those of other directors and since Lee was a writer before he went to make movies you can easily imagine that his quiet stories would have been better off in the literature medium. Especially "Secret Sunshine" proved that point in my opinion, being wrongly a highly acclaimed drama. This doesn't mean that I don't know how to cherish a serene drama, but Lee's cold and reserved approach - for some strange reasons a lot of critics use the positively connoted word "humanistic" when they talk about his works - doesn't do justice to the medium film. Things are different in "Poetry", though. Even if this drama couldn't completely excite me either, for the first time I saw the inner magical power that according to some critics is slumbering within the works of Lee Chang-dong.

At the 2010 Cannes Film Festival "Poetry" won the prize for the best screenplay and deservedly so. The story revolving around an old lady who finally wants to fulfill her life-long dream and write some poetry, when at the same time cruel reality is catching up with her in the shape of her grandson who is said to have been involved in a gruesome crime, is astonishingly multi-layered and unfolds on a lot of subtle levels, so that even the running time of about 139 minutes feels shorter than one might have thought considering the slow pacing of the film. Mi-ja always remains credible as the main protagonist, especially because of her pecularities and flaws. She might not show her feelings often as is typical for Lee Chang-dong's movies, yet she seems a lot more warm-hearted and closer to the audience than for example Jeon Do-yeon in her role in "Secret Sunshine". This leads to the fact that "Poetry" actually works on a drama level without having to dive into tearjerker realm. The mix of humanistic exploration and subtle emotional bonding to the viewer simply strikes the right notes this time.

"Poetry" is told in quiet pictures, a lot of long steady shots or handcamera shots, which also can cause some nausea because of the shaky camera work, are standing in the focus, there is no soundtrack that could run the risk of endangering the claim to reality as the movie simply lacks any score and the story is told with a fine sense for what's important. The characters are believeable and their special character traits are unfolding in a subtle fashion. Most of all you have to ask yourself why they behave so unresponsive like Jong-wook when he realizes that his grandmother knows about his crime. He just continues meeting with his friends as if nothing happened at all, it is simply somewhat uncomfortable for him when his grandmother tries to confront him with the felony he commited. And it's the same with the other characters. The fathers of the criminal offenders talk about how to compensate the mother at a few mellow meetings and their practical way of dealing with the crime and the consequences that they have to fear for their sons is distressing.

As all the other characters are lacking emotional involveness this is also what makes Mi-ja a character to sympathize with as she is the only one who is thinking of the victim and in a way also wants to carry the guilt on her shoulders. Yoon Jung-hee, a famous actress in the 60s and 70s, who Lee Chang-dong could convince to come back to make a movie after a 16 year absence, delivers an incredibly multi-layered portrayal which just is what carries the excellently written story. At first she seems to be your typical grandmother, always talking a bit too much, yet no one really listens to her which is why she feels lonely. When sitting in a poetry seminar and the first thing she does is ask questions the kind of only a woman can ask who has been taking care of the household all her life - and we all have already sat in a seminar or workshop where someone like her completely annoyed all the rest of the auditors - you can't really imagine that we would start to gain interest in her. But after she hears of the raping she undergoes some change. You can even tell from her face that she doesn't know how to deal with it and so she goes through different emotional stages. She becomes quieter, more reserved, but in poetry she continues to look for the beauty in the world and to be at one with it.

In many respects "Poetry" is more captivating than Lee's former works. This doesn't just include the more practical things like the money Mi-ja needs to get together, but we are also waiting in excitement how things will go in general. Is Mi-ja going to protect her grandson no matter the cost or can't she square it with her conscience? In the course director Lee also breaks one or two taboos, therefore, analogous to "Oasis" we also find sex with a handicapped person but also between old people. Lee shows these themes, that are normally hushed up, with a certain distance, especially the subjects that are the thematical center of the film like crime and sin which is something that you try to clear yourself of in Korean society by simply using money. This distance, however, in fact plays in the favor of the movie this time because the drama doesn't feel exaggerated which easily could have become the case. Nonetheless, Mi-ja can move us and the numerous interspersions of poetry may lose some of their impact in the translation, but they are still nice to listen to and underline Mi-ja's yearning for beauty in the world which is supposed to be found everywhere. Mi-ja's search for it is in its own way almost spiritual and Lee Chang-dong's critical look at the society is touching on a subtle level. In the end, the movie rightly bears its name.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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