Near the start of Lee Chang-dong’s ravishing new film Poetry (Shi), students in a community center poetry class set out to describe the most beautiful moments in their lives. The scenes they choose are modest and poignant. One man remembers the triumphant feeling of spreading out on the floor of his first apartment. A young woman recounts the day she taught her beloved and now-late grandmother the words to a favorite song. Mija (Yung Jun-hee) cries as she recalls an afternoon when her sister wanted to play with her. Then just three years old and dressed in her finest outfit, Mija felt “so good… so pretty” to be recognized by her sister, older by seven years. Mija will be noticed again in the film, this time by a spiritual sister of sorts.
Disarmingly girlish, Mija is making her way through an indifferent city with a lacquered pink smile and a self-deprecating laugh. Surviving on a public subsidy and her wages as a maid, she lives in a crowded apartment with her moody teenage grandson, Wook (Lee David). As she scrapes by, her efforts go largely unappreciated, both by Wook and his divorced mother, who lives in another city. Still, Mija maintains a lively curiosity about the world and a yearning to create. After enrolling in the poetry class, she attempts to “really see.” This, her instructor (Kim Yong-taek) explains, is the key to artistic inspiration.
Soon she sees two deeply disturbing facts. The first concerns her own failing health, which she chooses to keep secret. The second is Wook’s participation in a crime on school grounds that resulted in the suicide of a young girl named Hee-jin (Han Su-young). Along with the school’s administrators, the fathers of the other delinquent boys have banded together to cover up the crime, and they want Mija’s share of the hush money. While Mija’s encroaching dementia will eventually rob her of her memory and ability to communicate (“The nouns are the first to go,” a doctor tells her, “then the verbs”), the people around her commit to a willful forgetting, attempting to sweep the truth from sight.
While Mija’s efforts to see begin as a creative act, she soon takes up the cause as a moral imperative. The film quietly observes her odyssey, as she attends Hee-jin’s sparsely attended memorial, then visits a series of locations: the secluded room where the boys attacked their victim and the site of Hee-jin’s suicide. Director Lee Chang-dong favors suggestion over explanation: his camera “sees” instead of tells, letting viewers draw their own conclusions. In so doing, he demonstrates a rare trust in the audience, as well as in his story and his actors. Yung Jun-hee, who is in almost every scene, delivers an astonishing performance as Mija, awakening to all the good and destruction in the world just as it’s slipping away from her.
The film underlines that slipping away in the metaphor provided by poetry. Mija’s teacher worries explicitly that it’s a dying art form: no one reads it anymore, he says, much less writes it. The loss is a symptom of a more widespread problem, Poetry suggests, the inability of individuals to “really see” each other. Had Wook and the other boys recognized Hee-jin as a person, acknowledged her pain, could they have continued to perpetrate their crimes? Mija will eventually barge into Wook’s bedroom, trying to shake a confession out of him. He pulls the covers over his head, refusing to look at her. Maybe it’s then, when she realizes she cannot force her grandson to atone within his own heart, that her mission becomes clear.
In one of Mija’s classes, a fellow student describes a doomed love affair: “Even the suffering,” she claims, “is beautiful.” Mija’s suffering — or, her realization of it — is made beautiful here. As Mija sits by the river where Hee-jin took her life, the camera zooms in on her notebook, so that it fills the frame. Droplets begin to fall and soon saturate the paper. At first, the viewer assumes the splashes are Mija’s tears, then realizes they are raindrops from a passing storm. As Mija’s story attains another, almost metaphysical dimension, one can’t help wondering if the droplets are indeed tears after all, those of Hee-jin, the girl whose tragedy haunts the film from the first unsettling scene to the last.