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Poetry 시 (Shi)

January 25, 2012

The women and few men sitting at their desks in the film “Poetry”have open faces and smiles. They’re good pupils, these older people who have come to the cultural center to learn. Perhaps because they have chosen to be there, they don’t have the look of sullen resentment and cultivated boredom that glazes the faces of the high school students glimpsed now and again. Instead these latter-day bards gaze at the man who has come to say something to them about art and maybe life. Instead he holds up an apple and talks about seeing.

The importance of seeing, seeing the world deeply, is at the heart of this quietly devastating, humanistic work from the South Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-dong. Throughout the story, the teacher, a bespectacled man with an easy manner, will guide the students as each struggles to write a single poem, searching memories and emotions for inspiration. “Up till now, you haven’t seen an apple for real,” he says in that first class, as the film cuts to a student, Mija (Yun Jung-hee), sliding into a seat. “To really know what an apple is, to be interested in it, to understand it,” he adds, “that is really seeing it.” From the way the camera settles on Mija it’s evident that he could substitute the word apple for woman — or life.

For Mija, a 66-year-old raising her only grandson, Wook (Lee David), in a cramped, cluttered apartment in an unnamed city, the pursuit of poetry becomes a pastime and then a passion and finally a means of transcendence. At first, though, it’s a pleasant distraction from an otherwise mundane existence, if also a way to exercise a mind that, as a doctor tells Mija early on, has begun to slip slowly away from her. Out of fear or confusion, she keeps the diagnosis to herself and almost from herself, telling neither Wook nor his mother, who lives in another city. Instead she dons the poet’s cap. “I do have a poet’s vein,” she says, chattering into her cellphone. “I do like flowers and say odd things.”

She seems so unremarkable, this woman with her white hats, tidily arranged scarves and vanity. But like this subtle, transfixing film, she draws you in. Crucial in this respect is Ms. Yun’s performance, a tour de force of emotional complexity that builds through restraint and, like Mr. Lee’s unadorned visual style, earns rather than demands your attention. (His earlier features include “Secret Sunshine.”) The shabby rooms and ordinary streets in “Poetry” are shown without fanfare, more like statements of facts than pieces of an evolving narrative. Yet it’s the prosaic quality of this world, its ordinariness, that makes the story’s shocks reverberate so forcefully, beginning with the revelation that Wook and five friends, all boys, have been implicated in the death of a classmate, a girl first seen floating face down in a river in the opening scene.

There’s a mesmerizing quality to that sequence, which begins with an image of rushing water, partly because — like the young child on the riverbank whose viewpoint you share — you initially can’t make out what it is that you’re looking at until the body floats into the frame in close-up. The corpse belongs to a teenage girl who accused some classmates of having serially raped her. On the most brutal level, her body introduces a mystery. Yet there’s more to the opening, including the children clustered on the riverbank, ominously doubled by the teenagers who helped put that body in the water and whose indifference suggests that, for them, this death wasn’t cataclysmic, just play that got out of hand.

This cruelty doesn’t exist in isolation, as becomes obvious when the father of one of the other accused rapists contacts Mija and sweeps her off to an afternoon meeting at a restaurant. Together, he and four other fathers have decided — with the school’s blessing — to give the dead girl’s mother a large sum of cash, a bribe for her silence. What’s done is done, one man more or less says, as another pours the beer. (“Ladies first,” he says, offering Mija a glass.) “Although I feel sorry for the dead girl,” a father says, “now’s the time for us to worry about our own boys.” Her face empty, Mija sits wordlessly. And then she drifts outside, opens her little notebook and begins writing: “Blood … a flower as red as blood.”

Out of pain, Mija finds a way to see, really see the world, with its flowers, rustling trees, laughing people and cruelties, and in doing so turns reality into art, tragedy into the sublime. It’s an extraordinary transformation, one that emerges through seemingly unconnected narrative fragments, tenderly observed moments and a formal rigor that might go unnoticed. Yet everything pieces together in this heartbreaking film — motifs and actions in the opening are mirrored in the last scenes — including flowers, those that bewitch Mija outside the restaurant and those in a vase at the dead girl’s house. The river that flows in the opening shot streams through the last image too, less a circle than a continuum.

At one point, Mija asks her poetry teacher with almost comic innocence, “When does a ‘poetic inspiration’ come?” It doesn’t, he replies, you must beg for it. “Where must I go?” she persists. He says that she must wander around, seek it out, but that it’s there, right where she stands. In truth, there is poetry everywhere, including in those who pass through her life, at times invisibly, like the handicapped retiree (Kim Hira) she cares for part time, a husk of a man whom she will at last also see clearly. The question that she doesn’t ask is the why of art. She doesn’t have to because the film — itself an example of how art allows us to rise out of ourselves to feel for another through imaginative sympathy — answers that question beautifully. NY Times

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 25, 2012 1:36 pm

    Have you seen the film?

  2. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    January 25, 2012 1:48 pm

    I saw it last night on DVD and was profoundly touched, especially at the role of words and poetry in early Alzheimers. I saw my grandfather die of Alzheimers and knew the role of memorized Bible passages and memorized poetry in his ability to maintain expression. Perhaps the last time I heard him make sense was when he mistook our living room for the meeting room and made all us kids sit down on the couch while he read Phil 2 to us. We had to pray and turn out the lights and go to our bedrooms while he was being persuaded that the meeting was over and it was time for him to go to bed. Of course, it was really on 7:30 and we still had to do the dishes and our homework.

    Then I thought a lot about writing poetry again, not that I feel Alzheimers -just yet!!!

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