Chang-dong Lee’s must-see film, Poetry (which was in competition in Cannes 2010 and won best screenplay), opens at Los Angeles’ Royal theatre on May 6. The film also won directing, screenwriting and acting awards at the Asian Pacific Screen Awards and the Asian Film Awards.
Below, writer-director Lee (Secret Sunshine, Oasis) talks about his inspiration for the film, the writing process, how he works with actors and the balancing of beauty and pain in the film. He is certainly not afraid to explore difficult territory — Poetry tells the story of a mid-sixties woman learning to write poetry amidst news of a horrific local crime involving her grandson. But the beauty that is able to emerge proves Lee’s point: “Life has two sides like light and shadow. Writing a poem is an action for finding the beauty, but it doesn’t exist on its own usually. The beauty, no matter if it is visible or invisible, joins with pain, dirt, and ugliness. Art itself is ironic just like our lives.”
Two clips accompany the interview below:
The exquisite film has won critical praise from the likes of the NYT’s Manohla Dargis, who writes: “The importance of seeing, seeing the world deeply, is at the heart of this quietly devastating, humanistic work,” while Roger Ebert concludes that Poetry “contains certainly the most poignant badminton match I can imagine.”
Note: Lee’s responses have been translated from Korean in this interview [he is pictured above with the film’s star, Jeong-hie Yun].
On the inspiration for Poetry:
Lee Chang-dong: A few years ago, there was a sexual assault case committed by a group of youngsters and it stuck in my mind for a long time. I wanted to make a story about it but didn’t know how. But then while watching TV at a hotel room in Japan, the word ‘poetry’ came up to my mind. I was watching a channel for sleepless travelers, just typical images with peaceful scenery and music for meditation. The river was flowing, and a fisherman was throwing a net and catching fish on a boat. At that very moment, I realized how to make this cruel case into a story: It had to be told through ‘poetry.’ A woman in her sixties learning poetry for the first time in her life [while at the same time] her grandson commits a violent crime. The main plot, characters, the title ‘poetry’ – I came up with it all together.
All these things came to me from instinct and intuition, not from logical thought. [But I was then struck with worries, which I’ve had since] becoming a writer in my twenties. I have suffered from self doubt, [and worried] what effect my writing could have to change the world, what the purpose of my writing would be. It’s like Theodore Adorno’s saying “Is a lyrical poem possible after Auschwitz?” Mija [the main character] represents such questions in film. Although she is old, she’s innocent enough to ask those questions. Actually, she’s similar to a life beginner. On the other hand, she is losing her memories and words [due to alzheimers]. She is getting close to death because forgetting is one form of death. That makes her adventure to make one poem for the first time more tragic.
On the writing process:
LCD: When I come up with an idea, I usually keep it in my head for a long time. I wait for it to grow by itself and knock on the door to come out. Even after the knock, I don’t write it right away. Until the story gets a clear frame and the details are fully grown, I only think about it in my head and take some notes. Once I start writing, it doesn’t take very long.
On his process working with actors:
LCD: First of all, the most important thing is casting. When I cast actors, I don’t look for the ‘best’ actors. I think it’s better to search for the film’s characters in reality and to bring them into the film. Once I finish casting, I try to believe that the actor is the same as the character. And I also want them to believe that. After that, everything is left to the actor. It is up to him/her how to speak and react in a certain situation. The director only helps him/her to understand the situation better.
I partly agree with people who call me an ‘actor’s director.’ I think that successful directing always depends on what sort of characters I create in the film. I don’t want actors to be overly expressive. I often ask my actors to do ‘nothing but be the character himself/herself’ accepting the situation they’re in. I believe the acting is a reaction rather than a performance. However, this is only a basic rule and I cannot stick to it all the time. Sometimes it’s better if I explain how I want something performed in detail. But in principle, I try to refrain from detailed directing.
On immersing the audience in the film:
LCD: I wanted the audience to share the adventure of a woman in her sixties trying to write a poem for the first time in her life. So I cast a real poet as the instructor at her poetry class to make the audience feel as though they are not watching, but rather that they themselves are participating in a poetry class. The same goes for the scenes of poetry recitation. I wanted the audience to listen to the poetry recitations as if in person and to think about what the real beauty is and how to find it.
On the film’s reflection of culture:
LCD: Of course the film reflects certain part of Korean society. For example, parents tend to overprotect their kids. However, things this film deals with can also be seen in any other societies, especially sexual assault issues; most societies show a similar attitude more or less. [It’s common for everyone, including victims, to conceal sexual assaults] and so it seems that men especially feel no sense of guilt in concealing their own acts of assault. Through this film I wanted to look at the ‘morality.’ I wanted to question the relationship between life and morality.
On balancing the dichotomy of and relationship between pain and beauty:
LCD: Life has two sides like light and shadow. Writing a poem is an action for finding the beauty, but it doesn’t exist on its own usually. The beauty, no matter if it is visible or invisible, joins with pain, dirt, and ugliness. Art itself is ironic just like our lives. I also wanted to make the audience consider in what way films can find the beauty within our lives.
While trying to write a poem, Mija at first wanted to find and show visible beauty, such as beautiful flowers, singing birds. And then, she finds out that the beauty is not something only seen from outside. The real beauty is invisible. She also comes to realize that beauty can’t be separated from dirt and ugliness, sorrow and pain. It is after Mija takes the dead girl’s sorrow and pain into her own that she can finally complete her poem. I hope the audience feels that the beauty is [not only ‘our’ or ‘theirs’ or ‘mine’] – but also about our relationship to others.