Saturday, March 5, 2011

Review of Poetry

Opened in Philadelphia yesterday. Catch it if you can. Powerful, moving stuff.

This review originally appeared in ICON and is reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina)

Popular culture frequently treats the elderly in a hi-and-goodbye fashion. Once in a while a writer bestows a soul upon someone with noticeable wrinkles, but most characters over the age of 60 are usually placed into one of three categories: genial kook, sage crank, or wacky comic relief. Even the great actors heading into their golden years can't catch a break. Robert De Niro's explosiveness has morphed into comic irony. Dustin Hoffman, one of the best actors of the last 40 years, is now an invaluable supporting player. The days of Harrison Ford opening a movie on his own are long gone.

Director/writer Lee Chang-dong's subdued and powerful Poetry (opening March 4 at Ritz at the Bourse in Philadelphia) features a 66-year-old Korean maid as its heart and soul. Mija (Yun Jung-hee) is a sweet lady who expresses herself in platitudes and memories. You run into folks like her everywhere. Maybe she's an overly chatty relative or the cashier at the supermarket. She has no interests, no social awareness. Smiling politely and nodding is the best conversational tactic. You won't feel that way after the credits roll.

The people in Mija's life barely perform those simple gestures. She lives in a cramped apartment with her teenage grandson Wook (Lee David), who talks to her in commands when he's not ignoring her. Mija boasts of having a close relationship with her daughter, Wook's mother, though she's never around. We catch the end of one phone conversation that features Mija pleading with her to get Wook to use less electricity. Even Mija's clients can barely maintain polite interest. She's described as stylish and pretty, words used to humor her or serve as the preface to a request.

Then her uneventful life gets thrown into tumult. Mija is forgetting words, and her doctor's concern leads to a grave prognosis. There are more immediate problems. A girl at Wook's school kills herself, a terrible event made worse when it's revealed that Wook and his friends' unimaginable cruelty led the girl to jump off a bridge. The school and the police want to keep the story quiet, which requires that each of the boys' families pay five million won—or roughly $50,000. Mija does not have that kind of money, not that Wook or her ethically shaky associates care.

The only solace for Mija is a poetry class where the instructor wants the students to write a poem b the end. For Mija, the class is a pleasant diversion, a chance to tap into the artsy instincts people say she possesses. But despite looking at flowers and trees for inspiration, nothing comes. What does happen is that Mija becomes obsessed with the deceased young girl, unknowingly embarking on a journey that slowly awakens her soul. Unlike most films, which would squeeze in a spiritual rebirth after a musical montage, Poetry takes its time telling the story. We know Mija, whose quest for expression is not just an artistic endeavor: It's about justifying her existence and the girl's. .

Lee's leisurely approach allows the tension and drama to sneak up on us. The emotional shifts feel all too real; understanding is earned the hard way. The tension between Mija and Wook--Yun and Lee David give stripped down, painfully human performances—is unbearable. The grandmother gives her oblivious, unconcerned grandson every chance to show remorse. She thrashes out; she leaves a memento of his callous behavior on the breakfast table. The kid just curls under the covers or turns on the television, not realizing that he's spurning his lone ally's help. Lee destroys the carefully constructed lie where Mija has resided for so long. He swiftly deflates her love affair with flowers: They're featured in a photo with the ill-fated girl; before a blunt diagnosis, a humorless doctor says that the pretty flowers in her office aren't real. Like a child, Mija is flattered and sweet-talked by the men in her hush money ring.

Mija finds her voice and ends up writing a moving poem that certainly isn't about flowers or trees. It's one she deserves to write, and it serves as the perfect conclusion to Lee's haunting exploration on what it means to be human. Poetry doesn't give us a homogenized, happy-faced triumph—it rips the blinders from our worldview. The movie is hard to watch, but empowering in a way few dare to be. [NR]

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