To write poetry is
To remember mother’s hands.
Washing the white rice
At cold dawn during winter solstice
To write poetry is
To wake alone
Deep in the night weeping
It is to build a solid cornerstone
To raise a pillar
In your broken heart
It is to calm the bare corner of the window,
Shaking all night,
With all your might
It is to empty without hesitation
The rancid water that keeps rising
It is to create a forest of empty void
— “Writing Poetry” by Cho Yonghye
The poem above is read in a scene of Lee Chang-dong’s latest film, “Poetry,” which recently had its US premiere at the New York Film Festival. In many ways, it beautifully states the aims of Lee’s beautiful and mournful film: exploring what it means to practice a dying art in an atmosphere surrounded by death.
This question is confronted by the main character, Mi-ja (Yoon Jeong-hee), a woman in her 60’s who is raising her grandchild alone. In an early scene, she is complaining to her doctor about odd pains she is getting in her body. However, the doctor points out a potentially more serious problem: she has begun forgetting words and the names of things. Eventually, this is diagnosed to be a symptom of the onset of Alzheimer’s. Appropriately – in an example of how subtly and cleverly Lee sets up thematic echoes that resonate all throughout the film – Mi-ja decides to take up a poetry class to attempt to make art out of the words she still has left before they all go away.
While Mi-ja attempts to practice the rarefied art of putting poetry down on paper, the world around her seems violently opposed to this. Just as the title of Lee’s film is that of a dying art, the plot revolves around a death, that of Hee-jin (Han Soo-yeong), a high school girl who is found floating in the river by a group of young boys in the visually striking opening shot. Hee-jin has committed suicide after being repeatedly gang raped by a group of boys in her school. (A similar true-life case was Lee’s inspiration for “Poetry.”) Mi-ja’s grandson Wook (Lee David) was one of the boys who participated in this act. However, the boys’ fathers are less concerned over the crime than what this will do to their sons’ reputations. To that end, the fathers have decided to chip in to offer the girl’s grieving mother compensation money – of which Mi-ja will also have to contribute her share – and they collude with the school to keep this crime away from the prying eyes of the police. Hee-jin, while an absent presence, is nevertheless a crucial character in the film. Mi-ja begins to obsessively follow the girl’s ghostly trail, attending her funeral service, stealing her portrait from the altar, and visiting the places where Hee-jin was raped and where she killed herself. The film’s conclusion strongly hints that both their fates will intertwine, in ways that are left ambiguous but can be guessed by clues that Lee drops in his scenario.
And it is this ambiguity that is at the heart of Lee’s film. His previous films “Green Fish,” “Peppermint Candy” and “Oasis” had very strong literary qualities, befitting Lee’s pre-cinema career as a novelist. But beginning with “Secret Sunshine,” and even more so with “Poetry” (which can be seen as a contemplative flip side to the outsized passions of “Secret Sunshine”), Lee’s structures have become ever looser and much more cinematic. Much like the best poetry, “Poetry” leaves much empty space within itself to allow the viewer to read between the lines as it were, and fill in details not explicitly spelled out in its text. Lee lets scenes play very long, nearly to their breaking points, and while some have seen this approach as a flaw, I contend that these relatively empty narrative spaces are as essential to the film as the scenes which seem to have more dramatic heft.
The most cinematographically beautiful of Lee’s films, “Poetry” is a film about observation. It allows us the time necessary to observe natural beauty and, more importantly, the wonderful lead actress Yoon Jeong-hee. “Poetry” was specifically written for Yoon, and she rises to the occasion magnificently. Lee’s previous film “Secret Sunshine” also featured a brilliant lead performance (by Cannes best actress winner Jeon Do-yeon); Yoon in “Poetry” is much more subtle and less showy, but no less riveting. There are many scenes where we watch her, and watch her watching. These scenes of contemplation and observation make the more conventionally dramatic moments stand out even more strongly, and resonate even more powerfully. Many other scenes are given equally ample space, such as the poetry readings, and the scenes of Mi-ja and her classmates relating the most beautiful moments of their lives. And while these scenes may at first seem to be superfluous, they are actually crucial in setting up the incredibly moving conclusion, which fulfills the film’s circular structure, which flows just like the river that begins and ends the film. Here, Hee-jin is finally given the proper memorial that she was denied by most of the other characters in the film. This also doubles as a memorial for Mi-ja as well; whether this memorial is premature or not is one of the many questions “Poetry” leaves for the viewer to decide.