May 1, 2011 Poetry @ The Gene Siskel Film Center – Chicago
Poetry is the quietly devastating, humanistic new film from South Korean director Lee Chang-dong. Mija (played by veteran actress Yun Jung-hee), is a grandmother on the cusp of memory loss. After enrolling in a community center poetry class, this elegant and proper sixty-ish woman who is struggling to raise her teenage grandson on her own, is faced with the discovery of a heinous family crime. Finding strength and purpose through her new creative process, she allows herself to understand and escape the shame and pain she endures. Coming out of retirement to take the role of Mija, Yun’s performance is mesmerizingly rich and emotionally complex and carries this visually unadorned film.
Not being a newcomer to the festival circuit, Lee’s other feature films are Green Fish (1996), Peppermint Candy (2000), Oasis (2002) (winner of the Best Director and Best New Actress awards at the Venice International Film Festival) and Secret Sunshine (2007) (winner of the Best Actress award at the Cannes International Film Festival), and in its world premiere at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, Poetry won Best Screenplay.
What I really appreciate about this film compared to the recent wave of Korean films that has hit our shores this year – The Man From Nowhere (Lee Jeong-beom), I Saw The Devil (Kim Jee-woon), and The Housemaid (Im Sang-soo) is the way the crime was handle visually. Although it’s key and central to the story, it’s never seen, but only talked about. In all these other films, they actually show the intense and graphic nature of the crimes and almost glorify and exploit the violence and sexual content. Granted it works visually with these other films for mood, tone and shock value, but Lee’s chooses to focus on the reactions and how it affects not the people who actually committed the crime, but their families who are left to deal with the aftermath. These other films are all outstanding and visually amazing, but I felt that they are not fully representative of Korean cinema and was glad to see less eye candy and more focused storytelling that is what had really brought Korean cinema to the forefront of the International festival scene of the early 2000’s.
Poetry does not have a scheduled U.S. DVD release date, but is theatrically playing stateside thru June ,it’s A Kino International release. Check it out at your local art house if you can, it’s on my top five list for this year.