A remarkable Korean meditation on the the nature of life, death and memories
If it could be reduced to anything as prosaic as a formula, this mysterious and beautiful film from Korean director Lee Chang-dong might be expressed as Ozu plus ? what? It is a picture of something inexpressibly gentle and sad, something heartbreaking and absolutely normal, but something stirred up by a violent, alien incursion. Something lands with an almighty splash in this calm millpond of melancholy regret.
At the centre of the action is Yun Jung-hie, who plays sixtysomething grandma Mija, living in the sticks and getting by with a nursing job; she looks after her troubled teen grandson who lives with her in a modest apartment. His mother (Mija's daughter) now lives in Busan: it is an arrangement which has evidently been arrived at long ago, and never discussed. Mija was once a beauty, and still praised for being "pretty" and "chic", extravagant compliments which embarrass her greatly. But now Mija finds that she can no longer remember basic words and a doctor diagnoses the onset of Alzheimer's. Something in this terrible news inspires Mija to join a community education class, to learn poetry. Before the facility of language deserts her utterly, Mija wishes to write a single poem.
But it is more complicated than that: the discovery of a dead teenage girl, floating in the river, turns out to be connected with her, and poor Mija, at the end of a blameless life, must shoulder a terrible new burden of horror and disgrace. Lee suggests that the knowledge of this in some sense accelerates her dementia, but also that she feels a secret kinship with the dead girl. When she was the victim's age, her teachers told her she had the soul of a poet. The feeling is made manifest in the movie's final, extraordinary sequence.
Maybe Poetry would have worked well enough if it had simply been about an old woman who wished to write a poem before Alzheimer's wiped everything out. On first seeing it, I felt it might be better if it had been just about this. Yet without the plotline about the girl, it would not be the film it is. This terrible event, Mija's own responses, and what they indirectly reveal about her own youth, are what define the film's tragic quality. Poor Mija repeatedly complains that she feels unable to write a poem, yet without realising it, she is becoming a poet; she is refining her consciousness in the shadow of death, shaping that raw poetic facility which may or may not ever break free into actual written language. She is making sense of her life: that is the "poetry" which is taking place, minute by minute, scene by scene.