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November 07, 2010

Starz Denver Film Festival 2010 - Poetry


Lee Chang-dong - 2010
Kino International 35mm film

It seems in keeping with Poetry being a film that is in part about words would win for best screenplay at Cannes. Poetry is about words, and Poetry is often about words, and sometimes the lack of words, verbal and written language. With that title for this film, this is probably a given. What is interesting for me is that Lee has chosen to focus on Mija's pursuit of expressing herself through words when most filmmakers would center on her relationship with grandson.

At this points I have only seen three of Lee's films, Green Fish and Oasis being the other two. What is interesting for me are some of the thematic elements, of characters who would probably be considered peripheral in most films, who usually live marginal existences, in out of the way places. Even Green Fish, somewhat the most conventional of Lee's films, about a young man out of the army who seeks to climb the ranks of a crime family, alternates with the main characters real family, living outside of the city, with the brother who has cerebral palsy. The brother is treated lovingly, with warm humor. Oasis goes further in having one of the main characters be a young woman with cerebral palsy, played so convincingly by Moon So-ri. In Poetry, Mija is an older woman who gets by with government checks and a part time job as a maid, primarily cleaning after an infirmed older man who may have suffered a stroke. One of the other elements consistent with Lee's films is his portrayal of women, often subject to emotional, if not physical, abuse.

The span of the film covers the month from when Mija decides to take a class on writing poetry, until the end of that month, when her poem is due. She is seen forgetting words on occasion, stumbling around to describe a bus station for a cabbie. A visit to a doctor confirms early stages of Alzheimer's. Mija constantly asks various poets she encounters about where poetic inspiration comes from and how to recognize it, unable to see the poetry she does write in describing the discovery of fallen apricots found on a farm, or the chirping of birds.

Mija's relationship with her grandson, Wook, might be considered symbolic of the way men, or at least these group of men, view women. Indolent, sullen and indifferent just seem to scratch the surface for Wook, the high school age grandson, looked after by Mija, while his mother lives in Busan. Sleeping, eating and hanging out with his friends are all that matters for Wook. That he participated in the rape of a classmate who killed herself makes no difference. One of Wook's friends reportedly dismissed the activity that drove the young woman to suicide by stating she was short and plain. While one of the fathers of the other boys (and we never see the mothers) seems more enlightened when he asks if the boys' actions would have been any less justified had the girl been tall or pretty, he proves insensitive to Mija's predicament. To avoid scandal for the other parents and the school, the mother of the victim agrees to a financial settlement. The amount for each of the six parents is about $4,500, more money than Mija could easily afford or have access. As woman, Mija is expected by the men to be the one to apologize for the acts of the boys. As in his other films, Lee criticizes notions of class and gender in Korea.

The film ends with Mija's poem, first read by her teacher, with Mija's voice taking over, concluding with the voice of the young woman who killer herself, the source of inspiration for Mija's "Song of Agnes". It is an emotionally overwhelming ending for the film. Much of the film's success is due to Yoon Jeong-hee, brought out of professional retirement by Lee specifically to play the part of Mija. Mija is the actor's real given name. How much of the screen character was influenced by the woman who plays her may be the subject for further exploration. Where Mija and Yoon Jeong-hee intersect is in this statement from an interview, "Who doesn't like flowers? And for me, my heart doesn't pound, I scream in joy."

Posted by peter at November 7, 2010 06:17 AM


This film really surprised me at my local international film festival, held here in Melbourne a couple of months ago. I had unwittingly avoided all of Lee's films up til this one, and am now adding his previous films to my mile-long must-see list, to get a sense of his oeuvre. I wrote a brief piece on this film in a mad rush during the festival, but my efforts are woeful compared to yours - you managed to evoke the film afresh for me. Cheers.

Posted by: Michael C at November 12, 2010 05:00 AM