Poetry Review

Poetry, the fifth film by South Korean director Lee Changdong, is 139 minutes long; something a fellow reviewer took exception to.

“139 minutes? Bloody hell! I just hope it’s not a typical Korean film that’s all blood and death”.

I smiled and nodded in agreement, but to be honest had no real idea what she meant. The only Korean film I’ve ever seen is Old Boy and I’ve since blocked out that whole twisted experience.

Poetry is the story of Mija, a prim and well dressed woman in her sixties and grandmother to Wook; a typically mono-symbolic teenager who shares Mija’s tiny flat.

Wook seems intent on trying his best to break his grandmother’s polite demeanour and transform her into a snarling, foaming beast.

Other than this, Mija’s life is simple. She lives on a meagre state pension which she augments by looking after a housebound man who’s been paralysed by a stroke.

This has made him more than a little grumpy.

Once a week she goes in and clears up his flat, gives him a wash and makes a joke or two; all done with a smile and enviable good grace.

Mija’s previous life had been spent raising her daughter, who has now absconded and left a vocally absent Wook behind for Mija to raise. But she’s too old to be a mother and Wook’s too wrapped up his adolescent angst to care.

Life is hard for our Mija, but it wasn’t always like this.

More than once, Mija mentions that she had greater ambitions for herself. In her youth, Mija was creative and wanted to do something with this talent, but raising an ungrateful family got in the way of this.

In a last attempt to embrace her creative side, Mija signs up to a poetry course.

Struggling, she asks the teacher several times where they found poetic inspiration. But as Mija’s life changes dramatically, she soon finds more inspiration than she can really cope with.

Poetry took a bit of getting used to. Actually its Yun Jung-Hee’s acting that jars a little. She punctuates most every sentence with a girlish giggle and crooked little smile. Initially, this annoyed me; particularly as I knew how long I’d be subjected to this for. But as the film progresses, you begin to see this mannerism as Mija’s way of dealing with the difficulties that present themselves.

And my, they are difficult.

Yun Jung-hee, a celebrated actress in South Korea since the late sixties, came out of retirement to star in this film. And I can understand why.

The role of Mija is every aging actresses dream. Superficially, she’s very presentable; bumbling along in her quiet and polite way, yet gradually we get to see how troubled she is.

This is where Jung-Hee really makes the role of Mija her own, beautifully conveying a woman trying her best even though she’s swimming against a tide of slurry.

If I had to face her problems in Poetry, I’d probably strip naked and run screaming into the woods. While Mija is neither dramatic nor hysterical, she’s still visibly in pain.

So even though Poetry clocks in at almost two and a half hours, Jung-Hee makes sure they’re very enjoyable.

Tim Green

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Dates ‘n stuff

July 2011