I’ve never been a big fan of poetry. I don’t get much out of reading it and Lord knows I ain’t no good at writing nothing poetical (NOTE: I may be exaggerating slightly for comedic effect). So I can relate to Mija, the subject of Korean director Lee Chang-dong’s beautiful new film “Poetry.” A grandmother in her mid-60s, Mija goes to the doctor for an arm ache and leaves with the knowledge that her recent forgetfulness is the early stage of Alzheimer’s disease. Slowly losing her vocabulary, she tries to rebuild it by joining a poetry class at the local community center. Try though she might, she can’t find “poetic inspiration.”
Mija’s teacher gives her class two suggestions to guide their work. “To write poetry,” he says, “you must see well. The most important thing in life is seeing,” Later he adds that writing poetry is “about discovering beauty in everything we see in front of us in everyday life.” By either measure, Lee’s film lives up to its title. The movie sees Mija, played in an award-worthy performance by Yun Jung-hee, with absolute clarity. Her struggle against her disease and her writer’s block could not be more mundane or, in its own way, more beautiful.
There are further complications. Mija’s lives with her grandson, a disrespectful teenager named Wook (Lee David). He spends an awful lot of time locked in his room in hushed conversation with a bunch of friends. Eventually, Mija learns that the boys played a role in the death of a fellow student, whose body is found floating in a river surrounded by spectacular natural beauty, in the film’s opening scene.
Threats, blackmail, and enormous moral decisions all follow. This is all the stuff of a great mystery film — indeed, the raw materials of this story are not very dissimilar to Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s exceptional mystery film “Mother” — but Lee is working in poetry, not narrative. Instead of focusing on the drama swirling around Mija, he narrows in on the woman herself, painting a fascinating character study with words and, when Mija’s memory fails her or inspiration eludes her, a poignant lack of words.
Mija’s journey to become a poet brings her to those community center classes. As an exercise to stimulate their writing, her fellow students describe “beautiful memories” in front of the class, and it is interesting to note how many of those memories are heartbreakingly sad. As Mija’s troubles deepen, she becomes more in tune with the everyday beauty around her – note how often bad news in this film is delivered in the presence of gorgeous bouquets of flowers.
For Lee, it seems, the best art must come from the most painful places. Maybe that’s the reason a fortunate man like myself has never been great at poetry and why, by the end of this haunting film, Mija has suddenly discovered a gift for it. You know the expression when life gives you lemons, make lemonade? “Poetry” is one hell of a lemonade stand.
“Poetry” opens today in New York City. For a full list of playdates, go to Kino.com.