Tuesday, February 08, 2011
Warning: it may seem that there are spoilers in what follows. But the answers to the really important questions are deliberately not dealt with here.
Poetry (Shi) is a beautiful if deeply sad motion picture from Korea about a woman who finds herself at a turning point in her life & decides to take a class in poetry being given at the cultural center of the unnamed farming town in which she lives. Directed by Lee Chang-dong (Secret Sunshine, Oasis), Poetry stars Jeong-hie Yun as Mija Yang, who lives simply on a pension augmented by a part-time job providing elder-care while raising her teenage grandson, Wook. If Mija is a widow, we’re never told this directly and all we hear of Wook’s father is that the boy came to live with Mija after his mother’s divorce. The mother has moved to Busan to find work.
Mija has reasons for wanting to take a poetry class – as a child, she was told that she would become a poet one day. Now at 66, she is starting to have problems recalling the words for things, which can leave her confused and disoriented. She goes to the town’s clinic for a checkup, but there she comes upon a woman in the street hysterical with grief. The woman has just learned that her daughter has jumped from a bridge and drowned.
These events – the woman in the street, the trip to the doctor, the class in poetry – combine with Mija’s part-time job to make up most of the parameters of this complex, indirectly told tale. Poetry won the prize at Cannes for best screenplay, but it could very credibly have received awards for acting, direction & best film as well.
Poetry, the discipline, is not only a metaphor here. Your typical adult education course, the class is filled with beginners like Mija, led by a man in his 40s who obviously is a well-intentioned local poet doing his best to make ends meet with this job. His task for the month-long course is simple and straight-forward: they will write a single poem that month, but they will really write, finding that place in themselves that needs to be freed up in order to communicate whatever. He shows them an apple and asks them who has seen an apple before, which of course everyone has. Not really, he insists. You really have to look at the apple, really see it, before it will begin to appear.
Soon, Mija is dutifully carrying around a notebook, jotting down ideas, observations. She worries throughout the film that she never will be able to write a poem – she is waiting for an inspiration, a concept that the teacher teases her about. Were this all this film did, it might be a charming French film called Mija Writes a Poem.
But, at the same time, several other events are taking place that cause Mija enormous stress. One is her memory, another is that the old gentleman whom she tends is not such a gentleman at all, the third is the consequences of that woman hysterical in the streets. Her daughter had been in Wook’s grade, although Wook claims barely to have known her. The boy seems to have a life thoroughly confined to his PC, his little gang of buddies, and the video arcade. When his grandmother wants to play badminton because the doctor has told her to get exercise, Wook can barely stand having to do so.
One of the interesting aspects of this film, at least to this Anglo poet, are those points where contemporary Korean culture is nearly identical with life and institutions in the U.S. – one of which seems to be poetry as a social phenomenon – and the points where are they are radically dissimilar, such as the criminal justice system. It is perfectly okay, it would seem, to compensate victims for their suffering as though it were an ordinary business transaction. If all parties agree not to talk to the police, no investigation will ensue. If, for example, a teenage girl commits suicide after months of repeated gang rapes from a half-dozen boys in her grade, the fathers get together, come up with a figure, divide it among themselves and approach the girl’s family.
The problem with all this is that Wook has no father around to participate in such negotiations, his grandmother has no money to speak of, and the price they settle on – 30 million won – is roughly $27,000 US divided six ways. When the girl’s mother balks, the fathers implore Mija to speak with her, woman to woman. In many ways, Poetry is about the total lack of power women have in contemporary Korean society. Mija is as alone, and nearly as devastated by these events, as the girl’s mother. How will Mija come up with $4,500? What should she do with this feral grandchild, who is clearly a follower in his crowd, the one kid without a dad around?
Mija learns the dead girl’s name, Agnes, attends the funeral mass & goes to the farm where the girl’s mother lives. She makes some difficult decisions as to how to raise the funds. And Mija finds herself writing in her notebook as she goes through all these experiences. Even when the fathers are in the midst of tense negotiations, Mija just steps outdoors & pulls out her notebook. When we hear later what the other poetry students are (or are not) doing, airy, foggy musings that wrestle with memories and loss, Mija’s simple straightforward descriptions in her notebook take on enormous depth. There is one scene with an apricot worth the price of admission.
At this point in the narrative, Mija attends a reading in town, which looks like a local open-mic event. Some people are reading their work, others reading poems from favorite books. Afterwards, everyone heads to a bar where she complains that one guy, who used his reading to tell off-color jokes, was abusing poetry. One of the other women makes sure that everyone knows Mija feels this way – tho in fact somebody points out that this poet is an okay guy, a local detective who had been a big-city cop until exposing corruption got him demoted to the boonies – when who of all people turns up but Mija’s poetry teacher, who has been drinking in the same establishment with some of his writer friends. This is a fascinating moment, that instant when the local world of the community workshop, the small-town narcissism of the open reading, and the world of “the professional poets” suddenly interconnect. One of the poet’s drinking pals – an intense young man who we are told has been nominated for a major prize -- hears what his friend has been telling the locals about finding the poem inside themselves and letting it fly and can barely contain a certain snarky glee.
All of the important decisions in this film occur from this point forward, most of them off camera, and I won’t discuss them here, other than to note that the director lets us see them, just barely, without ever telling us precisely what they are. It’s a fabulous bit of not saying too much, steering away from that fatal disease of so much American cinema.
Poetry has played at several festivals and is about to make a run of art-theaters and campus film society one-nighters, starting this week in Rohnert Park. Given Lee Chang-dong’s reputation as the leader of Korean new wave cinema – and the sorry fact that his key works, such as Oasis & Secret Sunshine, are not yet available on DVD, this would represent a major film event even if it had nothing to do with poetry. That Lee Chang-dong actually gets it and gets it right in terms of what a poem can be as an act of thinking is itself an accomplishment on a whole other level.