The movie year is off to a tremendous start: Lee Chang-dong’s superb Poetry, sure to be one of the best of 2011, opens this Friday from Kino. We’re happy to see it so soon (these things are relative in the movie distribution business) after its local premiere at the New York Film Festival. Read Michael Koresky’s review below, and then go see it, if you can. This isn’t one to miss.
What if the words won’t come? This is a problem that Mija, the 66-year-old protagonist of Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry must wrestle with. The question ends up taking multiple meanings as the film progresses. Mija, long a widow, who lives in a small apartment with just a grandson, has enrolled, in a fit of inspiration, in a poetry class—she has the proper spontaneous nature to be an artist, but not, as it turns out, the chops. Unable to let the writing flow out naturally from her personal experience of the everyday world, she overthinks every attempt, distrusts every impulse. However, words also fail Mija in a more functional sense—right from the beginning, when she visits a doctor to have diagnosed a prickling sensation in her right arm that she suspects is arthritis or neuralgia, she admits to finding that she increasingly forgets the names for things. The doctor is clearly concerned more about her memory than her tingling appendage, and though there is no talk of it for a long while of screen time, the moment hangs over the film ominously. Eventually, a diagnosis comes, expectedly to us, if not Mija: that seemingly unstoppable, barely treatable worldwide plague known as Alzheimer’s.
That Alzheimer’s still cannot officially be diagnosed pre-autopsy, at least in the routine, casual way presented here, may be lost on the filmmakers, but it hardly matters to the scope of the drama—Poetry, a remarkable study of age, class, loneliness, responsibility, art, and the illusory nature of being, is not a film about the disease, nor, mercifully, is it a film that uses the disease as a device or even metaphor (an easy enough thing to do considering that one of cinema’s longest running, headiest topics is the impermanence of memory). Rather, Poetry allows the threat of Alzheimer’s to exist as a very real character trait, part of this woman’s shifting emotional makeup. Lee Chang-dong charts Mija’s late-in-life transformation: we know what her sad endpoint will be, but Lee has constructed a far less predictable narrative around her, one that gives her the choice and power that her brain and body will soon deny her. Read the rest of Koresky’s review.