Poetry (***)


So in case you weren’t aware, there were a few announcements of critics’ group awards yesterday.  As in, a seeming tidal wave of them.  Most of the announcements were relatively diverse compared to previous years, even if The Artist has clearly positioned itself as the film to beat come Oscar time.  But as usual, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association marched to the beat of their own drum and had (if we ignore its rotting corpse of a Best Picture winner) arguably the most interesting and laudable picks of the bunch.  The most egalitarian of their choices, by far, was their Best Actress citation of Yun Jeong-hie for her performance in Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry.

While some have hastily dismissed this verdict as deliberately going against the grain, those who have actually seen the film were far more complimentary.  Yun, it should be noted, is not some outsider who stumbled into an extraordinary performance.  Quite the contrary, she is arguably South Korea’s answer to Meryl Streep, with nearly three hundred films and several acclaimed performances to her name ever since her feature debut Sorrowful Youth in 1967.  She retired in 1994, and though she received numerous offers to return to acting, she claimed she “was waiting for something special” to bring her out of retirement.  In Korea, Lee Chang-dong is about as special as it gets, especially when it comes to great acting roles for women.

The film is about an elderly woman named Yang Mija, a grandmother of modest financial means who spends her days as a part-time caretaker and raising her ungrateful grandson.  Desperate to find beauty in her life, she enrolls last-minute into a poetry class and works to compose a poem of her own.  Tragedy strikes, however, when she receives two devastating pieces of news: that she is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, and that her grandson participated in a horrifying crime.

That’s a lot of plot for any one film, even one that’s over two hours long, and Poetry doesn’t really blend them all together as well as it could have.  In particular, her struggles with her mental deterioration drift in and out of the plot too often, and some of its depictions of minor characters – like the news investigator and Mija’s bland friend from poetry class – falter.  However, this does not sink Poetry as it might others, as Lee’s meditative and impressionistic take on his sometimes unfocused script gives an eerie effect; the film is not complex in terms of a tightly-woven plot, but rather a carefully composed series of quietly powerful moments that bring together the disparate struggles and impulses of this one woman in unexpectedly articulate ways.

"But what if the words won’t come?"

This is partially to the credit of his communication of the film’s progression, repeating plot points and motifs through different means of cinematic expression (dialogue, visual, performance, etc.), using repetition to imbue single scenes and developments with multiple meanings, and it’s a device that I’ve made sound far more tiresome than it actually is.  It is, if you’ll pardon the obviousness of this analogy, structured like a poem.  It settles on scenes, takes them in slowly, filters and restates them from different means but with a particular rhythm, giving us the opportunity along with its protagonist to take in these images and events and try to make sense of them in our own minds.

But far and away the most outstanding thing about this film is Yun Jeong-hie, who indeed gives a performance that more than satisfies the hype of her career comeback.  She brings out in Yang Mija a winsome, almost ingratiatingly optimistic presence that is rocked by the discovery that her mind and voice – one of the few things in her life that she has control over – will soon be cruelly taken from her.  Mija’s fight to use her mind as a force for positive creation and change under the shadow of a chauvinistic culture that barely regards her and a mind that is slowly turning against her is executed remarkably.  Most of her fans will more than likely cite her tearful recounting of her happiest memory in class, which was beautifully played, but I found myself more drawn to the slight touches and implications of her performance.  From Mija’s squirrely, nervous frustrations at remembering basic words to her faded composure barely concealing her disdain at the idea of buying off the parents of an abused teenage girl, Yun’s portrayal is captivating and deeply moving right down to the film’s tragically ironic end.

One other small problem (and this is slightly unfair to it) is that the very premise of an emotionally fragile elderly woman whose thrust into a sinister chain of events in order to protect her entirely unworthy offspring cannot help but invite comparisons to last year’s Mother.  Although it doesn’t reach the heights of Bong Joon-ho’s superior thriller, Poetry does manage to emerge as its own small, unique triumph.  It is a film that is somehow made more interesting by its flaws; an ebb and flow from unique and overfamiliar, sharp and unfocused, understated and melodramatic.  The imbalance, like it’s quietly heroic central character, turns out to be a source of genuine artistic worth.