In the same way that Steve McQueen’s Shame uses sex addiction merely as one avenue into deeper issues, Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry takes a similar tactic with its protagonist’s malady (Alzheimer’s) in order to play upon its own – not just deeper, but insidiously so – concerns. For all the film’s talk about beauty, and its genuinely poignant moments of personal confession and aesthetic consideration, there is a sense of pervading cruelty which is under constant subversion, from the opening moments of a uniformed girl’s corpse floating face-down in a river – the title “Poetry” almost demurely phasing in beside its stillness – to Yang Mi-ja’s persistent self-deceit, which she both helplessly suffers and, in a way, actively (and selfishly) utilizes.
What do I mean by this, exactly? Of course, Yang Mi-ja (or just Mi-ja; played by the pitch-perfect Yun Jeong-hie) is not to blame for her sudden cognitive ailment – such is common enough for a sixty-six-year-old. And, at least outwardly, she is a kind, beautiful, somewhat genteel woman, with an almost precious comportment in her dealings with others. She has raised her divorced adult daughter’s son in her stead (the daughter, without a voice or body for most of the film, lives in Busan) and also works as a caregiver for a partly-paralyzed old man, Mr. Kang (Kim Hee-ra). All worth at least some admiration, surely. Lee Chang-dong introduces her in a doctor’s visit: Mi-ja’s complaints about arm pain quickly turn towards the more concerning issue of memory loss. She has begun to forget common words, which embarrasses her, but also becomes something she quickly learns to charmingly deflect from. When, in a phone call with her daughter right after, she neglects to mention this troubling issue, the viewer knows something is awry – indeed, this seems heralded by a grim scene outside the hospital: the floating corpse has been found (suicide, apparently), and the girl’s mother is in a mournful daze, creating a spectacle where several bystanders watch in mute fascination as the disheveled woman mutters and groans and collapses on the street. Nothing is explicitly stated – the event occurs matter-of-factly, with little dialogue. It’s a good scene, playing into the idea of a public’s inability to sufficiently deal with its darker elements, and will have deeper relevance for Mi-ja, later on, for this will not be the first time she encounters the dead girl’s mother.
So, in these opening moments, the viewer is already keyed into the idea that there is more roiling underneath whatever Lee Chang-dong superficially presents on-screen. Omission becomes paramount, as Mi-jas’s silences often say more than any of the banalities she resorts to so that her façade of delicacy remains intact. I don’t believe she is a “villainous” figure, by any means, but she is more manipulative than she lets on. The mistake others make when dealing with Mi-ja is conflating her fragility (physical and mental) with naivete. Chang-dong, however, supplies enough context for the astute viewer to not fall into that trap.
Her sullen lout of a grandson, Jong-wook (Lee Da-wit), offers the viewer no obvious reason to like him. Yet, she coddles him, and despite the great gulf of years and upbringings, she nevertheless tolerates his rudeness. His introduction is a classically adolescent scene that shows him curled up on his bed, playing some pop music at a loud volume to drown out the silence. When Mi-ja prods him, he is unresponsive. Despite knowing nothing of the kid, one senses something is amiss. He spends most of the film bitching and moaning about needing a new cellphone or how much his grandmother is on his ass.
Then, a couple things happen, one quotidian and the other grave:
First, Mi-ja sweet-talks her way into a beginner’s poetry class. Even here, there is a slight falseness, an edge perhaps, to her pleading with the event staff, who only see a nice old woman, while the viewer senses Mi-ja is used to getting what she wants. The class is taught by a local poet who spouts clichés for the benefit of his clueless students but who, nonetheless, seems to have a good enough sense for the craft: he urges the novices to see things (brandishing an apple as example), to observe their surroundings intently. This, he claims, is the beginning of poetry. Only after seeing into the heart of a thing will inspiration come. These words strike a chord in his students, including Mi-ja, although what’s more important is that 1) when asked who has never written a poem before, Mi-ja raises her hand with most of the class – something she contradicts soon after, when she claims that she’d won small poetry contests as a child; and 2) this talk of seeing closely, of isolating an object, rendering it into an item of pure potential, will begin to mesh strangely with the other major plot point of Lee Chang-dong’s film.
Mi-ja is approached by a stranger, a man who introduces himself as the father of one of Jong-wook’s friends. He brings her to a meeting of several other men, all of them fathers, and it is revealed that their sons caused the uniformed girl’s suicide after continually raping her in school. In one of the film’s best (and oddly funny) scenes, Mi-ja hears of Jong-wook’s involvement and – once the topic of gathering money to reach a settlement with the girl’s parents comes up – wordlessly leaves the restaurant room they’ve all convened in. The fathers watch, stupefied, through the window, as Mi-ja starts to take notes on the flowers blooming from the bushes next to the restaurant. Like most of the people in the film, they are bemused by this confused old woman’s behavior (everyone seems more aware of Mi-ja’s precious act than they’ll let on in polite conversation), and cannot fathom why she would choose to do such a thing at such a critical time.
But this is a vital moment for Mi-ja. All that “purity” her poetry teacher was talking about, earlier, becomes less an outlet for creativity than an escape: a way to reinforce her own sense of cleanness and nicety, things which have surely bolstered her self-conception in the midst of what can only be described as utter loneliness. Mi-ja’s daughter lives in another city, her son lives in a world she barely understands, and her crippled boss exercises a twisted power over her (which she will come to wrest for her own purposes, later on); once seen in this light, the character’s evasions gain subtler shades than they do in a basic reading about a woman struggling with Alzheimer’s who uses poetry as a “means of transcendence,” as a way to “feel for another through imaginative sympathy,” as per Manohla Dargis’s review of the film.
No: Lee Chang-dong’s portrait of Mi-ja is more complicated than this rather airy assessment. Here is a woman who has carefully created a persona, a projection, that ensconces her from the aspects of her life which might bring her more pain than she’d care to experience, if examined closely enough. A natural defense mechanism, as well as a delusion, of a kind. But when her own mind betrays her, the delusions pile on, unbidden; however, as do the manipulations, which might be surprising for a viewer primed for a more basic tearjerker about a woman learning to come to terms with senility. Instead of being a mere victim, Mi-ja uses her frailties to her advantage, and although this is not successful all the time, it does let her off the hook in crucial moments, such as when she is pushed to meet with the dead girl’s mother by the rapists’ fathers. Mi-ja has just botched their plan for a quiet settlement ($30 million won, an unthinkable amount for Mi-ja) after letting things slip with a journalist desperate for a scoop. She is unceremoniously dropped off at the provincial town of the girl’s family (they own a struggling farm) and is encouraged to convince the mother, woman-to-woman, to accept the hush money. As she approaches the mother, Mi-ja notices fallen apricots on the path, and quickly jots down a fragment: “The apricot throws itself to the ground. It is crushed and trampled for its next life.”
She meets the mother. The woman does not remember her from the scene outside the hospital. They engage in small-talk, and as the conversation progresses, it seems as if Mi-ja does not remember her, either. In fact, she seems to forget about the whole point of speaking with the mother. Instead of bringing up the potential settlement, she goes on about her thoughts on fallen apricots, poetry, fashion, and so on. The mother seems charmed by her, and after compliments, the conversation ends, and Mi-ja walks away.
Then – in what I see as a misstep, on Lee Chang-dong’s part – Mi-ja stops, visibly disturbed. It’s clear that she realizes dementia got the better of her, and she’d forgotten to talk about the issue of the payout. However, instead of turning around, she leaves, lying to the fathers by saying no one was at the family home. Of course, she’s easily believed, as a confused old woman would simply give up after a wrinkle like that. It’s a solid enough development, in terms of straight drama, but in my view, letting Mi-ja’s expressions stay more ambiguous would have been the wiser choice. Is it not more interesting for the viewer to wonder if an episode of Alzheimer’s had occurred at all? What if Mi-ja had simply chosen to not bring up the payout in respect for the woman’s grief, or out of an uncomplicated fear of breaking social courtesy, or some other reason? Cutting to her moroseness at the bus station, and her explanations to the father, would then allow the possibility of an episode without the need for further dramatics. Showing Mi-ja’s realization of her fuck-up (and her subsequent fleeing) does lend credence to my claim of a flawed portrait, but it also has an unfortunate patness, a gesture towards melodrama, that simplifies the character. The ambiguous/ambivalent route would have opened her up into a welcoming sense of mystery.
In any event, Yun Jeong-hie acts the hell out of the role, directorial missteps bedamned. She simply vanishes into the part. A notable scene is when she sneaks into the dead girl’s requiem mass and cannot help but weep. This kind of moment is, of course, the spotlight every actor wishes to succeed in, and one with the sort of apparent emotionality that most viewers associate with good acting – although this is not always true. The best thing about this scene is what follows right after: Mi-ja furtively steals the commemorative photo of the girl from the church. Right after mourning for her with the loved ones! This theft complicates the prior weeping, and Jeong-hie manages subtlety with her tears (a difficult task), a subtlety that hides what the character might truly be grieving over.
There’s more to Poetry than just Mi-ja’s failing memory. Its gender critique is obvious but not overbearing, borne out mostly by the casual interactions between the fathers and Mi-ja, or Mi-ja and Mr. Kang – although much of this is also informed by class. The “problematic” tenor to these interactions recedes during the poetry meetings, where most of the attendees seem of equal socioeconomic footing. What keeps them from being overbearing is, I argue, the film’s title. More than just referring to Mi-ja’s instruction, “poetry” plays an immanent role in the angles/juxtapositions that Lee Chang-dong portrays. Take the very beginning: there is a river. Farmland. An idyllic scene. Then, boys by the shore. They are unkempt and shabbily-dressed, typical province children. In an almost primal depiction, they are messing around with rocks as one of the boys detaches and observes an object floating down the river. Indistinct at first, the silent reveal of the girl’s corpse takes an unprepared viewer by surprise. But the juxtaposition of these simple shots burrows – without fanfare – into the film’s deeper concerns regarding sex, brutality, exploitation, and so on (This is actually the best point Dargis makes in her assessment). Poetry, in Chang-dong’s film, has to do with the odd conjoining of seemingly disparate elements in order to produce a startling, unconventional effect. Flowers and fruit are repeating motifs that take on different airs in differing occasions. The end – which teeters on the edge of cliché – seems to re-purify the river trope from its incipient despoilment, and nicely rounds out the film on a structural level. Its unbothered rushing washes out the narrative’s goings-on, as well as Mi-ja herself, after her efforts to save her grandson from ignominy end in vain, and she dematerializes.
Poetry, despite its missteps, retains enough quality to distinguish itself from other simplistic films of similar subject matter. By complicating its main character’s responses to significant, grim events outside of her malady, Lee Chang-dong provides (and this is not necessarily related to the film’s artistic quality) a healthier portrait of such a sufferer, as the film grants Mi-ja a level of independence that the more conventional tearjerker would stifle in favor of making the character totally subservient to the illness. But choices like that do not correlate with reality – people, for good or ill, remain people, even unto the most malign of debilitations. And it is reality, not just her mind, that intrudes upon the safeguard of Mi-ja’s imaginings, like drops of rain on an empty page.
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If you enjoyed this review of Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry, Priest, check out the automachination YouTube channel and the ArtiFact Podcast. Recent episodes include a breakdown of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh, a dissection of Kurt Vonnegut’s classic novel, Galapagos, and a long discussion of photography from Alfred Stieglitz to Fan Ho and Vivian Maier.
More from Ezekiel Yu: Thwarting Desires: On Jean-Pierre Melville’s Léon Morin, Priest (1961), This Verse In Fire Forever: On Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Aurora Leigh”, Home Again: On Lav Diaz’s “The Woman Who Left” (2016)