Written and directed by LEE Chang-dong
South Korea, 2010, 139 minutes
Lee Chang-Dong's POETRY opens on February 11th
in New York at the Lincoln Plaza and Quad Cinemas
Winner of the Best Screenplay award at the Cannes Film Festival
"Onoe of the heartening glories of the filmgoing year."
- Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune
Thanks to Kino International, director LEE Chang-dong's latest masterwork is receiving a prompt theatrical release in the United States. Unlike LEE's previous film, Secret Sunshine, which had to wait over two years for such a release here, Poetry is opening in New York less than a year after it premiered in South Korea. Way to go, Kino!
The film stars YUN Jung-hee as Mija, a woman in her mid-sixties who lives with her selfish, ungrateful, and unappreciative grandson Jongwook (LEE Da-wit). Mija supplements her old-age benefits by working as a maid for an elderly man who has left-sided weakness as a result of a stroke.
Her life turns for the worst when she is diagnosed as being in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease (a.k.a., senile dementia) and her son is revealed to have participated in reprehensible, not to mention criminal, behavior with some of his school buddies.
She joins a poetry class, hoping to realize a potential that she may have had since her youth and to do it before her disease causes her to further forget words, a process that has already begun. Meanwhile, with her daughter, Jongwook's mother, living in another city, she has to deal with serious matters that must be addressed as a consequence of his actions.
Ms. YUN is a legenday Korean actress who appeared in a great many films in the sixties and seventies. Her last film prior to Poetry was Two Flags, which came out in 1994, about sixteen years earlier! She reportedly did not make any movies after that at least in part because she did not care for what she was being offered. That obviously changed with LEE's script for Poetry, to everyone's benefit.
She is in nearly every scene in the film, and her skills are obviously intact, and they're incredible. Sitting by a river, her body language alone epitomizes the word "forlorn." In a discretely shot seen in which she stands nude in a shower with the water streaming onto her head, her emotional pain is physically palbable to the viewer.
Most remarkable to me is a brief scene in which she recounts to her poetry class the earliest thing she can remember. Watching the film on a DVD screener, having first seen it at a press screening at the New York Film Festival last fall, I got the feeling that the camera very slowly was zooming or perhaps tracking in towards her. This is a common technique for increasing intensity. But there was no such movement. It was YUN's compelling performance alone that was drawing me in. And she was just sitting in a chair and talking. Incredible!
While there are no outbursts, rages, or ravings, her performance is a true tour de force, a magnificent demonstration of consumate artistry.
As for director LEE Chang-dong, I have written about him numerous times, both here and for Asian Cult Cinema magazine. The first film by him that I saw was Oasis, his third effort, and in my opinion the first of his masterpieces, followed by Secret Sunshine and now Poetry. (His first two films, Green Fish and Peppermint Candy, were both very good, but not quite of the same level.)
My admiration for LEE Chang-dong is boundless. When it comes to adult drama, no director does it better. Some may have done it as well, but there's no way top cinematic perfection. And that's just what he's achieved yet again with Poetry.
Not surprisingly, Poetry gets a 4 out of 4 star ACF Rating, but only because I can't give it 5 stars. It's an absolute must-see if you're at all interested in experiencing an intelligent, touching, and provocative film.
For an excellent interview with LEE Chang-dong at indiewire.com, click here.