Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry

These days, there are probably more people writing poetry than buying it. Hoping to find solace through the creative process, Yang Mija would also like to join the ranks of the former. The stylish sixty-something cleaning lady will need the consolation as she faces the greatest trials of her life in writer-director Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Yang’s life was never exactly easy. Caring for her churlish grandson Wook (Wookie might be more apt) in the place of his absentee mother, she somehow made ends meet as the visiting half-maid half-nurse for a randy old man partly incapacitated by a stroke. Yet, she always saw the beauty in life, until two shocks fundamentally upset her world in quick succession. Following her doctor’s diagnosis of early Alzheimer’s, she is stunned to learn her grandson and his running mates have committed a horrifying crime with tragic consequences.

Though she has trouble remembering commonplace words, Yang seeks refuge in poetry, enrolling in an adult ed. course and attending a regular poetry recital (as a spectator only). Unfortunately, the words just will not coalesce into a proper poem. Yet, as we see the notes she makes in her journal, she certainly seems to be capturing something rather lyrical.

As with his previous film, Secret Sunshine, Lee forces his female protagonist through an emotional gauntlet. However, Poetry is a far less grueling viewing experience, largely due to the mature elegance of Yun Jung-hee, the celebrated Korean actress returning to the screen after a sixteen year absence. While she evokes Yang’s tremendous fear and confusion, she beautifully maintains the character’s sense of mystery, never fully revealing how much she has lost mentally nor what her explicit intentions are several key scenes. It is a richly nuanced performance that hints rather than tells.

Former Minister of Culture and Tourism for the ROK, Lee is more of an actor’s director than a visual stylist. Yet, the artful composition of Poetry’s final scenes are truly striking, unlike anything previously seen in Sunshine or his debut film Green Fish. Indeed, the film is not misnamed, ultimately delivering a poem of genuine grace (even in translation), perfectly framed during Lee’s masterful endgame.

Already a festival darling, Lee has produced his deepest, fullest work yet in Poetry. It is an elegantly written work that fits together perfectly, despite its deliberate ambiguities. While never showy, Yun is absolutely devastating and as realistically grounded as a screen performance can possibly be. Korea’s baffling decision not to choose Poetry as their official foreign language Oscar submission can only be explained by politics. Had they done so, it probably would have been one of the frontrunners. An excellent film, Poetry opens Friday (2/11) in New York at the Quad Cinema.