'Poetry' paints intricate portrait of senescent heroine

Veteran actress bolsters South Korean auteur Lee Chang-Dong's latest feature film.

Photo: In 'Poetry,' Yoon Jeong-Hee plays Mi-Ja, an ordinary grandmother who must come to terms with extraordinary circumstances.
King International/Courtesy
In 'Poetry,' Yoon Jeong-Hee plays Mi-Ja, an ordinary grandmother who must come to terms with extraordinary circumstances.

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Writing poetry is not hard, if it comes from the heart." So says the local writing instructor in "Poetry," a riveting film that won Best Screenplay at last year's Cannes Film Festival. The latest work from Lee Chang-Dong, director of "Peppermint Candy" and "Secret Sunshine," "Poetry" is both heartbreaking and poignant, paying homage to the power of words and observation.

The film follows the seemingly innocent story of an ordinary and endearing grandmother, Yang Mi-Ja (Yoon Jeong-Hee). Absentminded and often misplacing her things, Mi-Ja carries out her tasks as caretaker of an elderly man and grandmother of a slovenly grandson Jong-Wook (David Lee) with dignity. Out of curiosity, Mi-Ja enrolls into a local poetry class, where the assignment is to write one poem. Her world is suddenly interrupted by the news of Jong-Wook's involvement in a horrible crime, as well as the news of her own failing health.

Much like the river that runs near Mi-Ja's home, the screen flows from one scene to another, granting the film a smooth pacing that subtly reaches its end. Every scene moves with a purpose that captures its audience, and the 139 minutes of the film never drag.

Seamlessly switching from scene to scene, the camera captures quiet moments: sunlight streams into a classroom, dim light fills a homey and tidy apartment on a silent night. Brightly colored flowers and the fresh greens of the fields pop out and give life to the screen. Both the natural scenery and the rural setting of the film are free from the busy rush of large cities, and crowds of hassled people are absent. There is an overwhelming sense of peace that permeates the film as it unfolds.

Despite the turn of events, the calm peace remains. Even in the face of shocking news, everything remains as undisturbed as it was before, untouched by the horrible trials that looms over Mi-Ja's life. There is rarely anything explosive to interrupt the relative stillness; bouts of anger or passionate fits of violence don't occur. The heinous crimes are shocking, yet they are subdued by the serene nature of the film, which renders its soft and melancholy tone.

The only change that occurs in "Poetry" is within Mi-Ja herself. At first acquiescent and composed, Mi-Ja is forced to perform unexpected actions driven by her growing desperation. Her forays into poetry give her the power to observe the world around her and the courage to challenge its injustice. In peaceful scenes of nature, Mi-Ja jots down little notes about the vivid color of a ripe apple, or on the sweetness of a fallen apricot; these observations inspire her and fuel her poetic endeavors.

Veteran actress Yoon Jeong-Hee portrays Mi-Ja with quiet grace. Her sweet smiles and soothing voice fill the screen, yet in scenes of great distress, her eyes stare into the distance and display her quiet sorrow. Yoon's Mi-Ja is an ordinary woman, desperate to find both order and poetry in her life. She is easy to empathize with, and this is perhaps why Yoon is successful in her role.

"Poetry" is full of despair and loneliness, yet it is remarkably beautiful. Lee Chang-Dong successfully creates a movie deeply touching and remarkable in its insight. He challenges his audience to find the poetry that lies in Mi-Ja's story, and to find inspiration from her observations. Drawing lyricism from its screenplay, the film is sure to enchant its audience - and perhaps make poets of some.

Contact Michelle at [email protected]

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