Like last year’s Mother (a useful measuring stick, though an inferior movie), Poetry is the story of an old lady (Mija) who feels terribly out of place in modern South Korea, mainly because she’s assumed care of a vapid kid two generations removed from her who can’t keep his social life free from violent crime. But where Mother used this premise as a catalyst for a gritty-gory mystery with a unique detective (the old lady), Poetry is several degrees more subdued, and consequently more affecting. In Poetry, when the kid commits the crime, Mija isn’t moved to violence of her own, but rather to intense grief and human feeling. And it’s these emotions that both shape the movie and drive Mija, at first innocently but soon desperately, to write poetry.
She’s been given care of her grandson, Wook, while the boy’s mother is off in a different city, looking for work. Mija is fond of telling people that she and her daughter are on good terms, close friends, but when the fathers of Wook’s friends come to her about settling with the family of a girl the boys have raped, she’s surprised that her daughter, absent from the care of her son, isn’t going to help. She’s been wrong in assuming a lot about her life. Her grandson is an emotionless rapist; her daughter has abandoned him; and the fathers see no problem with paying off the family of a raped girl as opposed to punishing their boys. Surrounded by cruelty and callousness, Mija enrolls in a poetry class, and the rest of the movie focuses on her struggle to make sense out of the world.
It’s rare to see stories about people finding themselves through quiet contemplation and writing. Something dramatic, usually criminal, is generally added, if not to make the story sturdy, then at least to keep people awake. Of course, Poetry provides this, but downplays it: as a movie, it has more respect for poetry than for violence, more awareness of inhumanity than thinly-veiled celebration of it (though, as Mother and many other South Korean movies have tried to show lately, that can be cathartic). But the pain of Wook’s victim, the pain he causes Mija, and the effects (or lack thereof) on their little South Korean community are what Poetry is about, and so they are what Mija writes.
The view of pain and the catharsis of writing are so acute because director Lee Chang-dong puts his movies together carefully. First, he’s chosen Yun Jeong-hie, an actress as expressive as she is natural, to play Mija. Second, his camerawork, always focused on subtle emotions — Mija’s face, the way she holds her body, the papers she uses for poetry — is open-air and loosely composed, constantly readjusting, though only slightly. The camera flows along with Mija: nothing is held too long, nothing is missed. The effect is casual yet gripping, not melodramatic, and unpretentious. Mija begins to write at a time when everyone she knows seems at their worst. A difficult thing to do and an even harder one to capture on film. Her biggest question, often asked — how can she write poetry when she’s surrounded by pain, shallowness and cruelty? — is the movie’s as well, but where Mija agonizes to form her thoughts, Lee seems overflowing with his ability to express.