Nathaniel, reporting from the New York Film Festival
In the first shots of Poetry, the latest film from gifted director Lee Chang-dong (Secret Sunshine) an idyllic moment of little kids playing by a river is interrupted by a floating object in the water. The corpse of a middle school student is floating their way. This nonsensational but horrific reveal will soon intersect with the story of Mija (Jeong-hee Yoon), a sixty-six year old maid. She happens to be exiting the hospital from a worrisome test (her arm has been tingling), when she is startled by the chaos of the body's arrival and the grieving mother of the middle-schooler.
Mija is quick with smiles and laughter, but as the camera intimately follows her about her daily life it starts to look suspiciously empty and full of loneliness and drudgery. She cleans, she cooks, she care-takes, and she has conversations with just about everyone, though those are often one-sided. Her grandson, who went to school with the suicide victim, treats her like the help, spending all of his time with his friends. Her cheerfulness starts to feel like a saving grace. She's a good soul but she's basically fading away without close friends or family members or anyone taking notice of her. Impulsively she starts attending a poetry class, eager to experience more beauty and do something creative.
Lee Chang-dong, who coaxed such a wondrous performance out of his lead actress in Secret Sunshine, performs similar magic again. Jeong-hee Yoon, who came out of retirement after 16 years for this role, is a wonder as Mija, beautifully fleshing out this woman's high spirits, kindness, and fears. Yoon's nuanced performance manages to reflect all of this within Mija's ever present curiousity. Mija seems to instinctively understand that her endless curiousity will fill her life with both more beauty and more sadness.
Watching the old woman deal with neighbors, grandson, doctors, employers, and fellow would-be poets, Poetry finds pockets of both humor and tragedy in its detailed observations of her character and the patriarchal town she lives in. Two things continually occupy her: the poetry class and the teen suicide. The poetry fills her days and the dead girl hovers on the periphery of her thoughts... sometimes taking over completely. In one fascinating scene that's exquisitely shot and performed, Mija impulsively steals a photo of the dead girl from her memorial service.
So Poetry begins, as many movies do, with a shot of a dead body. But it ends so very differently. What sets this beautiful character study apart from so many movies, is the reanimation of the young girl's corpse -- not literally, of course. It's not accomplished through cheap flashbacks (the story is told chronologically) but it happens spiritually and, well, poetically. This movie's magic is a spell cast through the genuine empathy of the writer/director and the inquisitive humanity of the protagonist, who can't let the girl, a complete stranger, go. Mija wants to write poetry, to commemorate the beauty in life. She knows its fragility, at any moment it can slip away. A-
Poetry won Best Screenplay at Cannes. Unfortunately it was not submitted by South Korea for the Oscars. Kino International will distribute the film in the States. Release date TBA.