By Don Simpson | February 3, 2011
Director: Chang-dong Lee
Writer(s): Chang-dong Lee
Starring: Jeong-hie Yun, Nae-sang Ahn, Da-wit Lee, Yun Jung-hee
Poetry opens with a very tranquil and — ahem — poetic shot of a river. The scene is practically silent, even the sounds of children playing on the riverbank are muffled by the soft white noise of the nature that engulfs them. The sublimely peaceful state of nature screeches to a halt when the camera — as well as one of the children — notices a dead body floating in the river.
The corpse appears once again, a few scenes later, as Mija (Yun Jung-hee) exits a medical clinic where she just visited a doctor regarding an electric pulse in her arm (due to lack of exercise) and a somewhat recent bout of memory loss (Mija notes that she once forgot the word “bleach” but — thanks to the more permanent impact of capitalism on her brain — she remembered the brand name Clorox). The corpse’s mother is wailing in severe distress as Mija and other onlookers watch her break down, eventually crumbling to the parking lot. Eventually, we learn that the corpse is a teenage girl named Agnes, who committed suicide after being raped repeatedly over an extended period of time by a group of six male classmates.
Mija is tasked with looking after her grandson, Wook (Lee David). While Mija is sitting drinking beer with the fathers of Wook’s five friends, she learns that Wook and the other boys are the rapists. Agnes’s mother has yet to press charges, and the five fathers want to provide her with a financial settlement of 30 million Won to protect their sons’ futures, yet as soon as the conversation turns to money, Mija wanders away…
Mija, who provides for herself and her grandson with government subsidies and a measly income that she earns as a part-time maid for a stroke-riddled elderly man, spends the remainder of the film paralyzed by the looming decision to either raise five million Won to silence Agnes’s mother or turn her grandson over to the police. She also must contend with her increasingly fleeting memory (which she learns is due to dementia), but as a last hurrah, Mija decides that she wants to learn how to write poetry — she explains that she has poetry in her veins because she likes flowers and has a knack for saying odd things. It is not without irony that she attempts to learn a new form of communication while her memory impedes her everyday thoughts and conversations. (It is also not without irony that Mija discovers that she is suffering from dementia around the same time that she learns just how demented the world really is.) With poetry, Mija might also be subconsciously searching for a way to connect with other people — everyone appears to write her off as a crazy and clueless old lady; people ignore her while she’s talking; her grandson even ditches their badminton game when he receives a text message from his friends.
Mija’s interest in poetry at this juncture in her life is also not without purpose. Mija learns during her poetry classes to “really see” the world, which teaches her to truly recognize the preponderance of violence and selfishness in the sex-obsessed male world. This new insight allows Mija to come to terms with her grandson’s sexually violent crime, as well as contend with the male conspiracy to cover up the crime and silence [the female voice of] Agnes’s mother. The male characters in Poetry repeatedly use their power, sex and money to control the female characters, and the language of poetry becomes a tool to liberate Mija from the oppression and cruelty of the masculine world.
Poetry, South Korean director Lee Chang-dong’s (Secret Sunshine, Oasis) fifth feature film, won the Best Screenplay Award at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival.