Monday, January 27, 2020

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #235 - Poetry (2010, dir. Chang-Dong Lee)

           I've been patiently waiting since 2010 to review this film since our I'd Love to Turn You on at the Movies review program focuses on works over ten years old. Korean director Chang-Dong Lee’s most recent film, 2018’s Burning, garnered a lot of acclaim here in the States, but his two previous efforts, 2007’s Secret Sunshine and (especially) 2010’s Poetry are both better films. For me, Burning is solid enough, but Lee’s layered and complex way with the central relationships in his films is overwhelmed by author Haruki Murakami’s eccentric plotting and characterizations, and Lee has his own eccentricities that are fascinating enough.
            Lee, a South Korean novelist and one-time public official who moved into feature filmmaking, has made only six films in the last 23 years, most of them centering on characters who have difficulty adapting to new surroundings or complicated circumstances, and Poetry may well be the finest of them all. The film opens with a scene of boys playing by a river. One of them sees something floating in the river, and we soon see that it’s a schoolgirl’s body. We will later learn that she’s killed herself because she had been raped. We then cut to Mija Yang (a superb performance by Jeong-hie Yun, who came out of a 15 year retirement from acting to be in this film), a woman in her mid-60s who is waiting in a doctor’s office waiting room because she wants the doctor to examine the source of a tingle in her arm - but on examining her, the doctor is more concerned that she’s forgetting common words and recommends that she get examined at a larger hospital in Seoul, suspecting (correctly) that she may be experiencing the first symptoms of Alzheimer’s. We then see Mija in her day to day routines - caring for an older stroke victim in his home part time for some money, then going home to raise her snotty and indifferent grandson Wook who bothers her for a new phone (she tells him to ask his mother who works in another city; him: “That’s not fair!”), and runs off from playing badminton with her the second he gets a text from his friends.
            The next day she joins a poetry class and is assigned to write a poem, her teacher explaining “Writing poetry is all about finding beauty. It is about discovering beauty in everything we see in front of us in our everyday life.” And so we then find her trying to “see” the everyday and put it into words, to “see” an apple in her kitchen, or out on the front porch still trying to “see” the leaves of a nearby tree when she gets a call from a parent of one of her son’s friends asking her to meet him as soon as possible. After her next poetry class, she meets with the fathers of her son’s friends, finding out that their sons (and her grandson) had been involved in the rape of the young woman who committed suicide, and that the other parents intend to offer the girl’s mother compensatory money which she is now expected to raise.
            And so the film goes forth slowly, moving forward by the accumulation of small details, as Miji winds her way through her world, now turned upside down by the events surrounding her grandson and her own health diagnosis, trying to find the beautiful in an everyday that seems rotten at every level. And this is where the film is special - rather than engage in histrionics over a plot that could easily have become the fodder for melodrama, Lee’s screenplay (which deservedly won the Best Screenplay award at Cannes) keeps its focus on Mija’s internal struggle, portrayed magnificently by Yun, who certainly made the right decision in accepting this role. In fact, Lee wrote the role with Yun in mind, catering the particulars of the character to Yun, who had been a major star of Korean cinema in the late 60s and early 70s, but had dropped to only occasional roles through the 80s and 90s before her retirement in 1994. In an interview, she said of this role: “And after I did the film Manmoobang [in 1994], I got a lot of offers from all kinds of industry people for fifteen years. But I had saved myself and waited for something good to come along, and I got a wonderful film like this one.” With the film’s poignant focus on Mija, rather than on its more lurid elements, we, too, drift through the goings-on, trying to seek the beauty of poetry in a world that seems bereft of such beauty.
            Though it sounds like a difficult subject for a film, and in some respects it is, Yun's sensitive performance (which also won her over a dozen international awards and nominations) is pitch-perfect keep the film grounded and keeps our minds in place with her as she searches amongst the pain and sadness for beauty. The same description could be applied to Lee's films, which are often gut-wrenching in their subject matter, but deeply humanistic in their approach to their characters. As a touching coda, it was publicly announced last year that Yun herself has been suffering from Alzheimer’s since 2009. Her husband, renowned classical pianist Paik Kun-woo, said Yun had to read many of her lines from a paper and that the illness made it impossible for her to do another film.
            - Patrick Brown

No comments: