DIR/WRI: Chang-dong Lee • PRO: Jun-dong Lee • DOP: Hyun Seok Kim • ED: Hyun Kim • CAST: Jeong-hie Yun, Nae-sang Ahn, Hira Kim, Da-wit Lee
Winner of the Best Screenplay award at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, this heartbreaking Korean drama is far from light entertainment, but never becomes exhaustingly over-emotional or bittersweet.
The protagonist is Yang Mija, a woman in her mid-60s thanklessly raising her teenaged grandson and beginning to show symptoms of the onset of early dementia. Feeling an emptiness in her life, she enrols in a poetry-writing class at a community college, where she is encouraged to take a new view of the world by her teacher. Unfortunately her chance to finally stop and smell the roses, so to speak, is overturned when her grandson becomes linked to the suicide of a girl in his class.
With a simply extraordinary performance at its centre by Yoon Jeong-hee – a noted Korean actress unfamiliar to most in the West after retiring in the mid-‘90s; this is her comeback – Poetry is slow and thoughtful. However, viewed through the eyes of this character, newly awakened to both the beauty and horror in the world, the film is never patronising or unnecessarily complex. We are shown the beauty that Yang sees, and if it is not enough for us, we see Yoon’s reaction to it and the beauty becomes evident.
The relationship at the core of the film, between grandmother and grandson, is at times difficult to watch, given how expertly observed it is. In one scene Yang tries to pull her grandson out of bed to answer her questions about the girl’s death – it is clearly mid-afternoon but he just pulls the covers back over his head. The two tug back and forth at the covers, until she is forced to give up. Yang’s exhaustion, both emotional and physical, from failing to get through to the boy is as harrowing as the scene is utterly realistic in its representation of teenage angst and sleeping habits.
Passionately shot and subtly edited, Poetry suffers in its last 20 minutes from ‘but it could have ended there’ syndrome. That said, the ending, when it does come, returns cleverly to the imagery of the film’s opening sequence, and once seen feels like the only ending this film could possibly have.
Emotionally charged and slow moving, Poetry will not be to everyone’s tastes, but it is a masterful piece of modern drama. At its centre is a character who deserves to go down in film history as one of the most inspiring maternal figures ever created – a woman who is willing to risk everything for a child who has done nothing to deserve to her love.
Poetry is released on 29th July 2011