I don’t know whether it was a self-created barrier of cultural incomprehension or a lack of empathy on my part, but after watching Poetry, the acclaimed film by Korean director-writer Lee Chang-dong, I felt distinctly less impressed than the critics. The atrocious subtitles, poorly translated into American high school vocabulary, didn’t help – nor did the portrayal of the film’s protagonist Mija, a 66-year old grandmother, as an elegant but inscrutable and rather dotty woman. And the film’s episodes of machismo and male posturing alienated me, too.
It required a conversation with a person who is invariably a bit more astute than me – and another look at some of the reviews – to put me right on certain points. The director’s intention in this film, I can now see, was to highlight, in Trevor Johnston’s words, reviewing the film for Sight and Sound, ‘the male sense of entitlement seemingly running through every layer of Korean society’.
The film, which won the award for Best Screenplay at Cannes in 2010, begins by a river, where the body of a young girl washes ashore. We soon learn that girl attended the same school as Mija’s grandson – who is in her care – and that the girl committed suicide by leaping into the river from a nearby bridge.
Meanwhile, Mija, played by legendary Korean actress Jeong-hee Yoon, is concerned she’s forgetting the names of everyday things, so her local doctor sends her to for a check-up where she learns that she is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. She may be losing words, but Mia enrols on a beginners course in poetry at the local Cultural Centre, perhaps because she was once told that she could be a poet one day – or perhaps as a form of mental exercise to stave off the Alzheimer’s. The teacher assigns the students the task of writing a poem by the end of the month long course, advising the students to pay close attention to the things around them. ‘In order to write poetry you must see well’, he says.
Mija is looking after her indolent teenage grandson, Wook, and is informed by the father of one of Wook’s friends that the suicide girl left a diary recording that Wook and five other friends repeatedly raped her and drove her to suicide. To get their sons off the hook from the law, the fathers propose that each of them – including Mija (since her daughter, Wook’s mother, is not around) should offer the victim’s grieving mother costly compensation to hush things up. This settlement is encouraged by both the school and police as the best alternative to prevent a local scandal, but it must be done quickly before the public learns of the incident and demands legal justice.
It was here that, watching the film, I began to lose my way. Is this the done thing in South Korea? What is the director’s attitude to this practice? Lee Chang-dong presents the scenes in which the fathers and Mija meet to discuss the matter in an understated and noncommittal manner, the only issue seeming to be how Mija – with no husband and on a low income – will be able to find her share of the compensation. There are other instances of patriarchal attitudes on display, too – the local poetry society is dominated by egotistical men, one of whom specialises in lewd and embarrassing innuendo.
Lee Chang-dong weaves together these observations of a male-dominated society with the story of Mija’s stuttering attempts to write a poem by ‘seeing well’. Mija and others in the poetry society seem to have a particularly vapid view of what constitutes a poem, so another problem, if you don’t know much about Korean culture or poetry, is knowing whether this is irony on the director’s part – or a realistic portrayal of the state of Korean poetry. At times, to her neighbour’s bafflement, Mija will wander off to contemplate an apricot, or gaze up into a tree ‘to listen to its thought’, while the poems read aloud at the poetry society are as vacuous and insipid as they come. Mija struggles for inspiration, and in a later scene out by the river, attempting to write her first poem, she stares down at a blank page while the rain marks the paper like tears.
Mija’s behaviour is erratic and contradictory, and her motivation in a crucial episode confused me. Presumably to supplement her pension, Mija works as a nurse for an elderly man who is semi-paralysed following a stroke. In an early scene she rebuffs his request for sexual satisfaction – ‘just one time before I die’ – leaving him naked and floundering on his bathroom floor. But as she learns more about the dead girl, and after meeting her mother, something awakens in her. She returns to the wealthy stroke victim and, in a scene tinged with tenderness, gives him satisfaction. Days later, she returns and demands that he give her the money she owes. ‘Is this blackmail?’ he asks. ‘Call it what you like’, she replies coolly.
It wasn’t only me who was confused about Mija’s motivation here; in an interview, Lee Chang-dong was asked:
In the scene where Mija has sex with Mr. King, is she already thinking of asking him for money? In my opinion, it seems she had come up with the idea afterwards…Was she just granting him his ‘last gift’ as a man?
What thoughts go through Mija’s mind when she grants the old man this merciful deed? Before she makes her decision to have sex with him, she goes to the river where the girl had died and stands in the rain, deep in contemplation, for quite some time. It must have been deep and complex thoughts that captivated her. She would have brooded over the sexual desires of immature boys that drove a young girl to her death, and the sexual desires of an old man who begs her to let him be a man for the last time. For some contradictive reason, she decides to grant him this wish. It might have been nothing but pure compassion, but regardless, when she demands to him for money, she dishonors this deed. Sadly enough, it is an inevitable choice she makes.
Mija pays the money, then turns her grandson in to the local police, calmly playing badminton in the street as he is bundled into a police car. She finally finds her voice, leaving her first poem on the tutor’s desk before the final class. She disappears from the film, but the words of her poem – ‘Agnes’ Song’, in which Mija comes to inhabit the being of the dead girl – is read over the final sequence of images.
How is it over there?
How lonely is it?
Is it still glowing red at sunset?
Are the birds still singing on the way to the forest?
Can you receive the letter I dared not send?
Can I convey the confession I dared not make?
Will time pass and roses fade?
Now it’s time to say goodbye
Like the wind that lingers and then goes,
just like shadows
To promises that never came,
to the love sealed till the end.
To the grass kissing my weary ankles
And to the tiny footsteps following me
It’s time to say goodbye
Now as darkness falls
Will a candle be lit again?
Here I pray…
nobody shall cry…
and for you to know…
how deeply I loved you
The long wait in the middle of a hot summer day
An old path resembling my father’s face
Even the lonesome wild flower shyly turning away
How deeply I loved
How my heart fluttered at hearing faint song
I bless you
Before crossing the black river
With my soul’s last breath
I am beginning to dream…
a bright sunny morning…
again I awake blinded by the light…
and meet you…
standing by me.
The director has said that when we hear Mija’s voice reading her poem, ‘we can merely feel her absence, but we have no clue as to where she has gone’. Chris Cabin, in a review for FilmCritic.com, also commented on the mysterious and equivocal nature of the film’s ending:
By the end, Mija has indeed found her voice, but the rest of her life is a shambles and Chang-dong ends his film on a singularly devastating series of shots of the sites of her quotidian tasks, emptied of her bright, lovely presence. Her life, populated by violent, brutal and often depraved men, has come to coincide with the girl her grandson raped. And whether she has abandoned her home, died somewhere, or disappeared into thin air, her inner consciousness remains an essential mystery.
Lee Chang-dong has made this statement about his film:
These are times when poetry is dying away. Some lament such loss and others claim, “Poetry deserves to die.” Regardless, people continue to read and write poetry. What does it mean then to be writing poetry when prospects of an ongoing future seem dismal? This is a question I want to pose to the public. But in fact, it is a question I pose to myself as a filmmaker: What does it mean to be making films at times when films are dying away?
The world she inhabits is crooked, a patriarchy full of misers, bent policemen and cynical businessmen (Lee, a former Culture Minister in Korea, offers a quietly devastating social anatomy), and her task is to see how best to navigate it. It’s a world where the cardinal sin is one of not connecting; poetry, with its search for similes, its ability to make fleeting moments and quotidian experiences seem of huge importance, its capacity to move readers, becomes a potential tool against such disconnection. Lee recently said that his work is always informed by the question: “What does it mean to be making films at a time when film is dying away?” In its sharp, understated fashion, Poetry offers a memorable answer: cinema, dying or not, must aspire to a condition of grace and of humanity.
– Sukdhev Sandhu, Telegraph
As this silly, vain and resolute grandmother struggles to do right by her grandson and her conscience and to write the first poem of her life, Lee tells a heartbreaking individual story that also transcends itself and seems to speak for all of us, caught in our beautiful moments between life and death, light and darkness, remembering and forgetting.
– Andrew O’Hehir, Salon