Poetry (Kino International, NR)

Like Secret Sunshine, the plot never goes where you expect it to, which I mean as a complement of the highest order.



Interesting that two of the strongest roles for older (50+) women in the past couple of years have both come from South Korea—the first was Kim Hye-ja’s role in Bong Joon-ho’s Mother, and now Yun Jeong-hie’s role as Mija in the new Lee Chang-dong film Poetry.

Chang-dong is the guy whose most recent film prior to Poetry was Secret Sunshine, which played at Cannes in 2007 and only got a very limited U.S. release last year. The only chance to see it here in St. Louis was its one screening at the Korean Film Festival at Washington University last February. Secret Sunshine was a masterful film (again with a strong female lead, though only in her 30s) and my hopes were high for Poetry.

Although not a murder mystery, in the first scene in Poetry we see a dead teenage girl floating down a river. This girl of course factors into the plot of the film, but not as directly as one would expect. The meat of the film is taken up with Mija’s day-to-day life; she works part time as something like a maid for an old stroke victim, battles with Alzheimer’s, and tries to forge a relationship with her distant, crappy grandson Wook (Lee Da-wit). The framework of the film is a poetry class Mija enrolls in and gets kind of obsessed with. She’s determined to write a good poem, but that’s harder than it seems when Alzheimer’s is making her forget what words even mean. But even this poetry motif doesn’t take up much of Poetry’s runtime—like Secret Sunshine, the plot never goes where you expect it to, which I mean as a complement of the highest order. Chang-dong’s got a background in writing novels, and it really shows in his films. This is one of those films where, while watching it, it seems like there’s no way it can stick the ending, but it turns out to be moving and resonant. That actually describes the film as a whole—Mija’s the type of person who if you encountered her in real life you’d probably just dismiss her (or maybe even become annoyed with if you were helping her in a retail setting). But thanks to the warmth and humanity Chang-dong is able to instill in the film, you come out with a great deal of understanding and empathy.

I should have learned not to let it happen, but Poetry did wind up being kind of a victim of how good Secret Sunshine was for me. Poetry is a very strong film that I would have loved going into with no preconceived notions, but since it’s not quite as good as Secret Sunshine I didn’t enjoy it as much as I should have. So, I guess that’s at least one good thing about how hard it was for Americans to see Secret Sunshine—they won’t fall into the same trap that I did. | Pete Timmermann


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