When Mija (Yun Jeonh-hie) was young, she was told that her love of flowers and odd use of words signified a poetic bent. Now, in her mid-sixties, suffering the onset of Alzheimer’s disease while raising a grandson who participated in a serial gang rape that resulted in the young victim’s suicide, she wants to learn how to write a poem. Her search for that poem is a search for beauty in a world that is becoming increasingly fragmented, both morally and rationally.
Writer/Director Lee Chang-dong, who helped bring the new Korean cinema to international attention with 2002’s award winning “Oasis,” has not fallen into the doldrums of success as have many of his countrymen. He has taken his career at a slow and sure pace, with “Poetry” only the second picture he has directed since 2002. In the interim, he made “Secret Sunshine,” which was also about the struggle for redemption in the wake of a young person’s demise.
In that film, Jeon Do-yeon played a woman who tried to work through her pain in order to forgive the murderer of her son, only to discover that God had already forgiven him, rendering her forgiveness meaningless. In “Poetry,” Lee carries on the theme of a woman trying to reconcile herself to a crime, but this time it is her own indirect complicity that torments her. Not the complicity of the title character in Bong Hoohn-ho’s “Mother,” in which the mother provides a false alibi for her son who she knows to be the murderer of a young girl, but the complicity of blood ties alone.
The thing in life that gives Mija the most happiness is watching food enter the mouth of her grandson. Such is the depth of her love for this scoundrel. Although she represents, in many ways, the last vestige of goodness in an inconsolably corrupt world, there are indications that she was not exactly a puritan in her own youth, when all she had to do was smile to make men fall in love with her. In one scene, she responds to a question about her past with an admission that there are many stories she could tell. Even now, men of all ages remark on her chic beauty, and she indeed has not lost her coquettish manner.
But what was wicked in the last century is froth on comparison to the rottenness of the rising generation, and that is what troubles Lee. With the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, the society Mija represents begins, word by word, to disappear, and she is seen as a crazy old lady walking erratically through traffic. As such, she is completely alone. Her troubles are hers alone; there is nobody willing to help her. And so is her search for a poem, She wanders through fields of fallen apricots, wondering if they have leapt to their deaths intentionally, and if such actions will cripple their attempts to reincarnate. Of course she is thinking of the suicided girl, and the poem she is looking for is the song that girl still sings, even in death.
Lee contrasts the sincerity of Mija’s search for poetry with the vulgarity of a cop who reads his overly frank verses at a poetry club. Mija believes he insults the name of poetry with his filth, but the majority is clearly on the side of the foul-mouthed cop. For Lee, poetry has been debased in the new century, and his Mija, through her commitment to the quest for beauty, represents a faint, disappearing shadow of the lost language.
It has now been five years since “Poetry,” and we patiently await the next film from Lee Chang-dong.