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With: Yun Jeong-hie, Lee Da-wit, Kim Hira, Ahn Nae-sang, Kim Yong-taek
Written by: Lee Chang-dong
Directed by: Lee Chang-dong
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Language: Korean, with English subtitles
Running Time: 139
Date: 05/13/2010

Poetry (2011)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Lyrical Worker

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Many of my esteemed colleagues love the work of Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-dong, especially his 2007 film Secret Sunshine, which received a sporadic U.S. release in 2010. Though I haven't yet seen that one, I jumped at the chance to see Lee's new film, Poetry. The title seemed to promise great things, and I was hoping for a masterpiece, but in the end the movie is only above average. Rather than proclaiming Lee as a master, I'm proclaiming him a "let's wait and see."

Poetry tells the story of Mija (Yun Jeong-hie), a 66 year-old grandmother, who raises her teen grandson in a small town outside of Seoul (her daughter is working in the city). Mija takes time to look elegant every day, wearing nice flowered dresses, scarves, and a pretty white hat, plus makeup. As the movie begins, she visits the doctor about a tingling sensation in her arm, and winds up being diagnosed with the early stages of Alzheimer's. (She sometimes forgets nouns.)

Almost on a whim, she joins a poetry class, where her assignment is to write one poem. She begins looking for beauty and inspiration wherever she can. Unfortunately, this is interrupted by the disturbing news that a schoolgirl has committed suicide, and that her grandson, Wook (Lee Da-wit), was one of six boys who allegedly, repeatedly, raped her. Wook is lazy, demanding and ungrateful, and the movie raises the interesting question of whether or not to sympathize with him. The parents of the five other boys decide to meet and settle with the mother of the dead girl, which requires Mija to come up with a huge sum of money that she can't afford. Her only employment is taking care of an elderly, but grouchy stroke victim, Kang (Kim Hira).

It's this collection of melodramatic staples that drags the movie back from grace: the rape victim, the suicide, the Alzheimer's, and the stroke victim. This is the kind of stuff that ordinary filmmakers throw into their films in order to win Oscars. And I understand why they're there: they give Mija a reality check. I was also annoyed by Lee's use of hand-held camera, which jiggles ever so slightly in every shot, but at least it was consistent. However, long sections of Lee's 139-minute film are devoted to the search for poetry, and those sections are gorgeous. Mija sometimes loses herself in her surroundings, and the movie becomes like a painting, a still life that simply transports us somewhere for an unlimited, undefined amount of time.

The poetry class stuff is interesting as well. A teacher tries to explain poetry to his class, and he ultimately fails. A poetry reading seems to get closer to the heart of poetry, but Mija wonders why its most enthusiastic participant, a cop, is so vulgar while he's on stage, when poetry is supposed to be about beauty. Later, a successful, award-winning poet shows up at their dinner; he's drunk and cynical. He has seemingly "discovered" poetry for himself, but found that there's nothing behind it. Likewise, the poetry teacher foresees a day in which no one will read poetry at all.

What saved Poetry for me is the brilliant, lyrical and powerful way that Lee manages to sum up all his themes during the final few minutes, though this is better experienced than explained. I should also mention that Ms. Yun gives an extraordinary performance here, expressing grief, worry, and confusion, but also -- and most importantly -- wonder. She is a veteran of more than a hundred Korean films stretching back to the 1960s, but she came out of retirement for this role, and it will most likely be the first time Western viewers have ever seen her. She is deserving of whatever accolades she can get.

Kino's DVD release comes with brief director and actor interviews, trailers for this and other Kino releases and a stills gallery. It's also available on Blu-Ray.

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