Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry resembles much of what is great about the current cinema coming out of South Korea — for my money, some of the best in the world. With recent films like Oldboy, The Host, Mother and The Good, the Bad, the Weird, South Koreans have proven time after time that genre film-making can be exciting, and unique to their culture and vision. Whenever I see a new South Korean film, I’m consistently shattered by the gorgeous cinematography and expert story-telling. The heightened emotion and indelible quirk is something we just don’t see in modern American films.
Opening on a serene river view, Poetry starts sweetly enough, showcasing the beautiful rural landscapes outside of Seoul. Much like the rest of the film, however, something unusual catches our eye to break us out of this bliss — in this case, a body floating downstream. This image haunts the viewer throughout the opening acts even as it’s appearance is left unexplained. What is the connection to our elderly protagonist Mija (played wonderfully by Yun Jeong-hie), a woman looking for life surrounded by those who exploit it?
To the film’s benefit, Lee Chang-dong doesn’t push the audience to figure out everything that the film presents. Poetry weaves through Mija’s life slowly, letting the horrific circumstances build to natural and devastating emotions. And interestingly, unlike many films, the incidents surrounding a young woman floating down the river aren’t our main focus. Instead, they serve as impediments in opposition to the primary story-line, with Mija enrolling in a poetry class in order to find a hidden beauty in the world. This balance works wonderfully as a profile of our character — much like our own lives, we aren’t dominated by bad things that happen to us, but they inevitably shape the decisions we make and the people we become.
Poetry fits right in with the recent output from South Korea, although it may be a little less accessible for an American audience. It certainly has elements of the grotesque, but it is far less action-driven than the films I mentioned in this review’s opening. It may fit in better with the Korean melodramas from the early parts of the decade — really wonderful films like Failan, Sad Movie or Il Mare (remade in Hollywood as The Lake House; yes, that one), and perhaps Lee’s previous film Secret Sunshine, which I have regrettably yet to see. Still, the film straddles these two paths of the post Korean New Wave well, balancing the bleakness with the joy.
At a run time of two hours and twenty minutes, many might call the film “boring”, and there are certainly moments in the film that seem drawn out or and too slowly paced, but this is mostly by design. The film won’t do a restless viewer any favors with its slow, deliberate pace and distanced view of its characters. The film keeps its audience interested by letting unanswered questions boil over and answered naturally within the frame of its characters’ lives. Overall, it does lack the energy of many other Korean genre dramas, still, Poetry speaks many important truths about life, in both its bleakness and its beauty.
My Best of 2012 Playlist by Eric Garneau
After being inspired by some friends, for the past few years I’ve been really into documenting my musical exploration with year-end mixes. I realize this is not a particularly novel thing to do, but hey, who has original ideas any more? Anyway, this has gotten even easier to do thanks to new technology like Spotify. read more