Poetry (2011)

Domestic trouble and creative struggle mingle in writer/director Lee Chang-dong’s unusual film Poetry. A stark, almost clinical drama is juxtaposed with a whimsical, cheeky story of artistic pursuits. The way they synthesis into something, well, poetic gives Poetry and ethereal quality.

The elderly Mija (Yun Jeong-Hie) find herself in a troubling situation when she discovers her grandson, Jongwook (Lee Da-Wit), who lives with her, is responsible for a horrific crime. As she tries to figure out a way to resolve this problem, she also faces artistic troubles when she aspires to take a poetry class at the local community center while inspiration constantly eludes her.

Mija is presented the idea of poetry being a way of truly seeing things for what they are, for taking things one has “seen” before and truly seeing and understanding the truth of it. This leads to wry humor where Mija intently looks at things at awkward moments, so lost in the hopes of finding inspiration in inappropriate contexts. But the important thing is that she’s trying to see with new eyes.

Poetry invites the audience to become a part of this process by constantly adding detail and nuance to the scenes. Most sequences involve action going on around the characters, things that may or may not be of interest beyond the main actors of the frame. Are these aspects crucial to the story? Perhaps not, but the film adds that dimension which invites the viewer to look at see as well.

Where Poetry becomes complicated is in some of Mija’s later actions. In particular, a song she sings at a karaoke joint and a surprising change of heart begin to invite her into being a different kind of victim to her grandson’s crime. While there is certainly a strain of Mija trying to understand this crime and she seems to be aligning herself with the victim, the film verges on the edge of misogyny.

However, it could be possible that this is part of Mija’s exploration to truly come to terms with the crime of her grandson, to see that truth, the one she must do more than simply imagine. Throughout the film she’s faced with this incongruency between others who know of the crime, both those who will not fully acknowledge it or those who fail to give it the proper weight and gravitas it deserves.

Later in the film, Mija expresses offense at a fellow poetry lover who constantly inserts crass jokes into his analysis of pomes. She holds that if poetry is about beauty, than this man is ruining poetry. It’s an expression of Mija’s real problem is that while she can find the beauty in the outside world, she cannot find it in her own person life, hence the lack of inspiration.

Poetry’s ability to bring both the beautiful and revolting together demonstrates one of the core struggles of art. Creativity and art often leans toward beauty, but we live in the shadow of evil. How can we see that beauty when the sun is blocked? Poetry struggles with that question and while it finds an answer, it’s an answer that’s just as tough as the question.

© 2012 James Blake Ewing