Korean director Lee Chang-dong generally displays an interest in outspoken characters suffering from irrevocable loss. His latest feature, “Poetry,” continues that trend with a moving portrait of creative discovery and the pressures of age. Yung Jungee plays the 66-year-old Mija, a gentle woman coping with the onset of senility and finding solace in a writing course. Her journey to externalize her life in verse forms the bulk of the movie. Lee patiently establishes her solemn existence around Yung’s deeply believable performance, injecting a bittersweet vibe into her bleak reality.
Like Lee’s 2008 feature, “Secret Sunshine,” the new work also revolves around a woman mourning the death of a child, although in Mija’s case, the child is not her own. In the opening scene, we learn that a young girl committed suicide partly in response to abuse from Mija’s grandson, whom she continues to raise in the absence of her neglectful daughter. As with the rest of Lee’s oeuvre, Mija’s world gradually comes together rather than shattering under the burden of too much information at once: First we see the dead girl, then we meet Mija and observe her going about her routine. The drama takes root only once Lee establishes an appropriately dreary environment for it.
Haunted by the death and stuck with the responsibility of paying the girl’s family to keep the case out of court, Mija faces a series of escalating threats to her cheery facade. She works part-time as a caretaker for a disabled man, perhaps to retreat from the encroachment of elderly limitations in her private life. But while that job continues to bring down her mood, she unearths her ultimate potential in the prospects of the written word. Enlisting in a poetry class, she brings humility to her inner search. “Are you a poet?” someone asks her. “No,” she says. “I’m just trying to write poem.”
Although Mija eventually happens upon an artistic breakthrough, the transition takes place almost exclusively through a naturalistic depiction. The underlying power of Lee’s movies comes from his decisive rejection of blatant sentimentality. He avoids music cues and other overt stylistic decisions by letting the performances tell the story. Yung’s eternally lost gaze doesn’t reach the depths of Jeon Do-yeon’s role as a grieving mother in “Secret Sunshine,” but she’s an equally tragic figure.
Mija’s disarming naivete enforces the sadness of her alienation. As her problems continually mount toward greater crisis, she seems almost incapable of a breakdown, but a number of increasingly downbeat twists challenge her resolve. She possesses a strangely inexplicable optimism, and Lee’s screenplay provides innumerable challenges that practically dare her to crack under pressure.
Thankfully, he also veers away from a Job-like tale of constant discontent. Instead, the focus goes to the emergence of process, as Mija absorbs her stress and ultimately funnels it toward her burgeoning craft. It may go without saying that “Poetry” adopts a lyrical tone, but this forms the crux of its appeal. In this case, the title says it all.
criticWIRE grade: A-
This review was originally published during indieWIRE’s coverage of the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. “Poetry” opens in limited release this Friday, February 11.