Once again, the UK gets a prizewinner from Cannes after a long wait – Poetry won the 2010 Script Prize. It was well worth the wait, so thanks go to distributor Arrow. We caught it in the comfortable surroundings of Chapter Arts in Cardiff. Poetry was written and directed by Lee Chang-dong, a novelist and scriptwriter/director who in 2003-4 acted as Minister for Culture and Tourism in South Korea. This long film (139 mins) is thoroughly absorbing and undoubtedly one of the major releases of the year – especially as it comes from what I presume is a small independent Korean operation.
Plot outline (no spoilers)
Mija is 66 but still looking after her teenage grandson Wook in a semi-rural district outside Seoul. The boy’s mother is attempting to find work in South Korea’s second city, Busan (some 300km away). When Mija visits a doctor for a minor ailment he thinks that she has early onset Alzheimer’s and refers her to a Seoul hospital. But she then discovers that Wook is involved in a serious incident through his membership of a group of schoolfriends. The parents of the other boys want to pay to hush up the scandal. Mija has no money and gets by through her pension and part-time earnings looking after an elderly shop-owner who has suffered a stroke. Feeling hemmed in by her problems Mija seeks release through a new interest in poetry after enrolling in a local class and she takes her teacher’s words to heart. He asks all class members to try to write one poem by the end of the course and Mija is determined to do so.
I’m a big fan of Korean Cinema though I’ve seen fewer Korean films in the last few years as the ‘Korean Wave’ has receded a little in terms of international distribution. The opening of Poetry seems very familiar with children playing by the river and a stunning mountain landscape. I was reminded of Memories of Murder (2003), a different kind of film but sharing some elements. Lee Chang-dong, in the press notes (available here), has said that the idea for the film came to him when he was watching television in a Japanese hotel room – one of those late night programmes when beautiful images of landscapes and soothing music are supposed to help you go to sleep. His idea was to explore the need to write poetry as a response to desperation.
Mija is played by Yun Jung-hee who was a famous Korean film actor of the 1960s to 1990s but who hasn’t appeared in a film since 1994. Her presence will certainly mean something to older Korean audiences. As Mija, Yun is presented as slightly eccentric in floral outfits with her hat and precise ways. Although her situation is quite desperate she maintains an outward appearance of calm and beauty – in contrast to her monosyllabic and slobbish grandson.
It should be clear from the outline above that this is a potentially rich and rewarding story – although I haven’t perhaps ‘sold’ it thoroughly because I don’t want to spoil the narrative pleasure. The film was released a few weeks ago in the US and it has already provoked a fair amount of comment, especially in terms of what is taken to be the resolution of the narrative. Lee Chang-dong has admitted that he intended the film to be ‘open’:
“Like a page with a poem on it, I thought of a film with a lot of empty space. This empty space can be filled in by the audience. In this sense, you can say this is an ‘open’ film.” (from the Press Notes)
If Lee is inviting us to ‘fill the blanks’ there are several different ways in which we can do this. The screening at Chapter was part of a project called ‘Cardiff sciSCREEN’ in which various local academics contribute responses to a discussion about the film which is then open to audience involvement. If you want to know more about this, there is an interesting website here (which includes a useful Korean view of the film). I think that this is a great idea but I wasn’t able to stay for the discussion and I’m rather more concerned to discuss the film ‘as film’ rather than to engage in the wider debates about dementia and poetry. I’d like to emphasise as well that the film is rewarding for audiences without a specific interest in dementia or poetry. In fact, the narrative for me seemed to raise dementia as an issue but then let it subside from prominence in the narrative – Mija is in the very early stages of forgetting simple words but she copes well when she can’t remember a word. We, of course, feel for her at these points but she is driven by concerns that are more immediate.
What then should we say about the film narrative? At one level the film focuses on the ways in which Mija has been isolated as a woman within Korean society. When we see her in different situations we see her struggling to ‘speak’ (i.e. both literally and metaphorically) when she is in ‘male’ spaces (though, as we’ve noted, she’s determined and does get there). From what we learn of her past, she has suffered from neglect and perhaps abuse by men and her relationships have been with women. Her family is now an absent daughter and an unhelpful grandson. The younger women that she meets are seemingly more confident and less troubled about ‘isolation’ – but it is clear that the problem hasn’t gone away.
One of the features of the Korean films that I have seen is often the way in which seemingly straightforward genre films also deal with important social and political issues. Poetry is in some ways a conventionally ‘realist’ social drama and its social commentary is quite subtle. Mija would have been born in 1943/4 – before the end of the Japanese control of Korea – and most of her life has been lived before the accelerated growth of South Korean economy and contemporary culture since the 1980s. I think that this is evident in her encounters with the men in the film. She has the utmost respect for her poetry teacher (who seems a lovely man with unlimited patience – although he is saddened by what he sees as the decline of poetry) but she at first mistrusts the policeman who belongs to a poetry group because his behaviour is boorish and bawdy. But she is told that he has been sent to the sticks from Central Seoul because he exposed corruption. He’s really one of the good guys whereas the smooth-talking men who are the fathers of Wook’s schoolfriends are representative of the new culture. It’s worth trying to think through this critique of Korean culture as you try to puzzle out why Mija behaves in the ways she does. The visual style of the film is also subtle. Mija is sometimes shown in extreme long shot in relation to the river and the mountains and she travels everywhere by bus (I hadn’t noticed before that Korean bus drivers follow the Japanese model and wear white gloves). In the landscape and on the bus she is again ‘isolated’ – i.e. there is space around her. This is a contrast to her ‘hemmed in’ isolation in her meetings with men but I’m not sure that I’ve figured this use of space out yet.
There is quite a lot of poetry in the film – several short pieces are ‘performed’ in class and at social readings. I’ve heard several people say that the film narrative itself is like a poem, but I confess I don’t know what they mean by this – enlighten me, please! Anyway, you should go and see this. It would make an interesting (but very long!) double bill with Bong Joon-ho’s Mother (2009) which has many similar plot elements but a completely different approach. I read in a Senses of Cinema essay that cinema audiences in South Korea are primarily made up of women – young women I assume. If this is true it would be interesting to know what they made of the film. Its box office run in South Korea was interesting, opening on 192 screens for a No. 7 slot but a screen average below $1,000. It then improved in weeks 2 and 3 – a sure sign of good word of mouth – before dropping out of the Top Ten after four weeks with a gross of $1.08 million. So far it has done pretty well in the US and I hope the word of mouth builds here too.
Here’s the US trailer with English subs:
and when you’ve seen the film, try this review (which contains spoilers) from a Bangalore writer with an interesting perspective.