Judging it merely from its premise, Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry has all the makings of a sappy, overblown melodrama. Yang Mija (Yoon Jeong-hee), 66, works as a maid to support her grandson Jong Wook (Lee David) after his mother left. She begins taking a poetry class at the local cultural center to help pass the time and realizes this might be just what she needed to take her mind off her hum-drum life, then bam, she gets diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and also has to come up with a hefty sum of money to pay off her grandson’s debt.
Even if the plot seems to be obsessed with turning Mija’s life into a tragedy, the film itself feels like nothing of the sort. Instead, it’s a meditative take on art, life and death that manages to be life-affirming instead of utterly depressing. Crafted with the loving but unobtrusive hands of the extraordinary Lee Chang-dong, the film works as a delicate character study in which Mija learns to create a private language as “common” words begin to fail her. Mija is the kind of person who comes up to strangers to talk about things she saw on TV or to ruminate on the color of flowers, which is why her diagnosis becomes as definitive as a prison sentence.
However, and this is where the movie becomes enigmatic, the story never really relies on Alzheimer’s disease as an actual plot twist. Mija never reveals to anyone else that she’s sick and eventually you might even forget that she is, too. Poetry is not a movie about a sick woman, in the same way it’s not a movie about struggling members of society or even about growing old. Lee establishes that perhaps by her very state as a woman, Mija is a victim of misogyny (the director has no problem acknowledging Korean chauvinism) and yet the film never tries to condemn society, either. Everything that’s revealed about Korean customs in the film is done so only by default. For example, when Mija has to tend to her grandson’s educational needs, she attends a council formed exclusively by men. She’s not only alone because of her gender, she’s also different because of her social status.
It’s almost surprising, then, that this woman, who by all means could spend her waning days moping and complaining, turns out to instead be so lovely and hopeful. It helps, of course, that she’s played by the astonishing Yoon Jeong-hee, who came out of a 15 year retirement for this movie. The way in which Jeong-hee takes on Mija with such compassion is altogether more remarkable because watching a behind-the-scenes documentary included in the DVD, you realize that the actress and the character have absolutely nothing in common. While Mija is sweet but seemingly unremarkable, Yoon appears to be a true life-force who attracts everyone around her. “Don’t make me laugh when I’m acting” she demands when she’s interrupted while shooting what must’ve been a tough scene with Kim Hira (who plays her sick employer).
Yoon allows Mija to revert to a state of childlike wonderment—even before we learn about her disease—and more often than not the camera catches her watching objects as if for the first time. This also leads to an interesting visual and thematic game in which the director takes us on a full cycle (the movie ends where it begins with truly haunting effect) “To write poetry you must see well” her writing teacher informs her, and Mija takes on the assignment with full force. Carrying a little notepad and pencil she takes time to, literally, stop and smell the flowers, wherever she goes. “I do like flowers and say odd things” she remarks to justify to herself why learning poetry at this time in her life makes sense.
Lee highlights the fact that Mija never thinks of herself as an artist (even if the poems she writes in the film are concise and haunting) and without making too much out of it, leads us on a quest of what makes artistic merit valid in the face of others matters in life. Is Mija an accomplished writer even if she thinks of herself as inferior? or is the man who tells dirty jokes, but is regarded as a local celebrity, more important than her? Mija’s constant attempts at modesty make her a strange creature, because we get the understanding that she’s been through a lot and has never given too much thought to her own self improvement, again, this is dealt with in a truly non-dramatic way.
Poetry is the kind of movie that might require multiple viewings in order to absorb all its richness. Like Lee’s previous film, Secret Sunshine, the larger subjects discussed seem to take on a different scale of importance according to the mood of the audience and in this way the film also resembles the structure of poetry itself. Each audience member will come away with something completely different after watching this film. When Mija sings “now I wanna take off my dress of attachment and drink a glass of oblivion” she might not only be talking about her life and her disease (is forgetting, after all, a remedy to a life of constant pain?) it’s also an invitation for us to approach this movie with a clean slate, every single time.