I’d let you in on an inside joke my couch potato girlfriends and I used to frequently snicker about: whenever we’re recommending and exchanging odd, never-heard-of films, the first thing we usually ask each other is: “Anong genre nito?” (What’s the genre of this one?) And if, like us, you happen to be a fan of movies with eccentric, artsy-fartsy themes, you’ll understand why it’s just plain hard to label this sort of movies under just one category. So when we’re not certain of the right classification, we’ll simply smile and say…”Uh…Life?” And then we’ll laugh, like our laughter’s the code for saying, “Okay, I get it.” Because really, there will always be these rare masterpieces that’ll be too stubborn, or perhaps too powerful, that they defy and transcend definition; Very much like this next film I chose to review next.
See, I’ve been waiting for the right Korean movie to blog about, and it also happened that I’ve been hearing lots of buzz for last year’s acclaimed director Lee Chan Dong’s film, Poetry, lauded by top critics worldwide as a nearly-perfect film. And seriously, how could I pass up on a movie entitled Poetry? So even without the slightest hint on what the plot’s about, I jumped on the soonest possible chance to see it. I say, if you dare use that beautiful, sacred word as a film title, you should live up to its greatness. And you know what? The movie did.
How a sheer simple movie can be this strong still leaves me baffled. It’s intimate and intense all at once, and it’s inexplicable how the scenes could speak or scream to your heart despite it being laden with rich, stirring silences. With plenty of powerful subtexts, I might as well make my life easier by saying this movie is about life, but I know more than anything else that it goes beyond that generic label. Poetry is a piercing, honest tale of death and its so many disguises; how it hides under the skin of the mundane or thinly veils itself with the sometimes monumental.
Brace yourself because this will leave you breathless and shattered, will leave your mind dancing in gibberish until all of what’s left is your very self, wondering how something beautiful can be so tragic…and how something tragic can be so beautiful, too.
A huge bulk of the film’s critical acclaim has so much to do with the soulful, elegant performance by its central protagonist—veteran actress Yoon Jeong-hee, playing a 64-year old woman who takes time to adore the flowers, loves wearing pretty hats and chic dresses, and keeps a little journal wherever she goes, just in case an idea pops up in her mind for a poem. Because, see, she’s been trying so hard to come up with a poem of her own, while she could. Yep, sounds like a woman after my own heart.
What’s bizarre about her cheery, optimistic outlook in life is the gloomy context of the community she’s been living in. With plenty of dark occurrences happening around her, she somehow sticks out like a sore thumb—which is effective because it draws you more to her serene, warm persona; as beautiful as the calm, before the storm. She’s a pleasant, hardworking househelp to a disabled, grumpy old man with sexual frustrations, and she’s also a diligent grandmother to a pimply, indifferent and ungrateful teenager who gets involved in a high school crime—a group of six boys who raped a girl from their school, thereby prompting her to commit suicide.
The movie opens with the discovery of the girl’s body on the river and the day Mi-ja goes for a hospital visit in which the doctor tells her she has Alzheimer’s. All of these happening in the first few minutes already chipped my heart around the edges, because seriously, how cruel would it be for a woman who is struggling to write just one poem in her life to be told she has an illness foretelling her inevitable loss of memory and words?
And from thereon, we gently unfold the mourning: I’ve never seen Death lurking in so many forms until this movie.
From the get-go, I already found it interesting for an aged woman to be a movie’s heroine, because, well, it’s unusual, at least in the mainstream sense of cinematic clichés. And then I realized: Old Age compliments the metaphor of Poetry as a dying art, which is the very thing Mi-ja is pursuing. Her Alzheimer’s, as I mentioned earlier, is a form of death for her memories, because she is starting to forget the simple words, and is slowly losing grasp of names of things.
The girl’s suicide in the opening scene, although not graphically depicted, is death of hope in living. What’s more, as the story progresses, we get two other forms: the revelation that her grandson is among the culprits who raped the girl, which I thought referred to a form of death in one’s innocence, considering his adolescent years and peers. Also, as a form of arrangement with the girl’s family, the dads of the five other boys got in touch with Mi-ja and told her that they’ll be shelling in five million won each to accumulate the 30 million won for the compensation of the girl’s family. And oh yeah, everything has been settled with the school to be done accordingly in hush-hush: death of morality methinks.
I like how Mi-ja’s character is strategically-positioned in a story plot dominated by men: the grumpy old man she works for, the five fathers of the boys, her poetry workshop teacher, and her grandson. Lee Chan Dong, in reference to her earlier work, Secret Sunshine, must have a fondness for spirited, brave women. Mi-ja is so fragile and feminine, but as the movie propels toward the end, you’ll find that she subtly commands your respect under that gentle interior. What great intensity, especially in the silent-filled moments.
Not to be missed, of course, is the actual Poetry aspect of the movie. I thought at first that the first few workshop scenes were all to conventional; I am not that charmed by the poet giving Mi-ja’s class lectures for some unknown reason. What I found brilliant though, were the brief sharing of memories they had within interludes. I don’t know, the delivery was just so genuine. And then the poetry readings Mi-ja has been attending on a regular basis, in which she meets fellow lovers of poetry.
Here’s the first poem she hears the moment she stepped in the cafe:
To write poetry is
To remember mother’s hands.
Washing the white rice
At cold dawn during winter solstice
To write poetry is
To wake alone
Deep in the night weeping
It is to build a solid cornerstone
To raise a pillar
In your broken heart
It is to calm the bare corner of the window,
Shaking all night,
With all your might
It is to empty without hesitation
The rancid water that keeps rising
It is to create a forest of empty void
“Writing Poetry” by Cho Yonghye
The film, as I mentioned, is genre-defiant, and as such, it might not be to everyone’s liking. If films with lots of silences aren’t your cup of tea, this is not for you. But if you’re the kind of couch-potato who wants, more than anything else, to see the world in a different light through lenses and lives one great movie at a time, then this is highly recommended.
And oh, just a heads-up. Beware: Yoon Jeong-hee will steal your breath away with the last few minutes. Watch at your own risk.