Don’t be deterred by the title, because Lee Chang-dong’s “Poetry” is not the sort of lyrical art house film you might expect based on what it’s called. Thanks to “The Tree of Life,” people have been talking a lot of “tone poem” films this year. “Poetry” isn’t one of them. I expected it to be, or at least as quietly focused on the natural world, with beautifully photographed landscapes scored to sad piano and sweeping violin, as many other slow yet exquisite Korean films are. And yet, amidst the 100% positive reviews for Lee’s latest are some unfortunate warnings to the typical American viewer about its supposed inaccessibility. Its relatively straightforward narrative is hardly the most difficult piece of Asian cinema, however, and I can even see more people tolerating its storytelling to Terrence Malick’s. That isn’t to say it’s better or worse, just not quite similar in the way you might think. The funny thing is that while most of “Poetry” is more conventional and linear than “Tree of Life,” its ending is the more vague.
Okay, enough comparing films with such little kinship. Here’s the basic plot of “Poetry”: a woman in her 60s with an inkling of Alzheimer’s, who takes care of a handicapped old man as a part-time job and who takes care of her teenage grandson as a full-time commitment, decides to take a poetry writing class at the local community center. Only she can’t quite find inspiration, probably because everyone, including her, seems to think that poetry comes from love and beauty, and this woman, Mija (Yun Jeong-hie), is surrounded by the real, horrible world of rape, suicide, disease, disability, laziness, and a corrupt male-dominated society that crushes her heart and soul on a daily basis. Even when she tries to look at nature for help, she sees blood and pain in the flowers and apricots throwing themselves at the ground only to be trampled upon. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and what not, and at times Lee reminds us there is beauty in the tragic, whether it’s metaphorically just raindrops ruining/decorating a blank page of a notepad, or literally a dead girl serenely floating down a river.
I don’t know, maybe I’m morbid and latched onto this idea of poetry coming from everything, even hate and ugliness. There is poetry in twisted irony, of course, as in the case of poetic justice. “Poetry” may not have an ironic twist or much of that virtuous payback nature, and most of the time its teen rapists and the affluent business owners trying to capitalistically cover up a terrible crime have nothing poetic about them. But I for one found a lot of dark humor surrounding the film and related most to and identified with an injured policeman character who participates in local poetry readings where he mostly tells lewd jokes. Mija isn’t too fond of this guy, claiming that he mocks poetry, but I disagree and I’d like to hope Lee does too. Even if he (and Lee) is making some fun of poetry, though, this is indeed necessary at times (after watching “The Tree of Life,” for instance).
Also, Mija and her classmates are made to confess their most beautiful memory in front of the room and each (though not everyone’s testimonies is shown) seems to stem with a painful or potentially painful situation, such as infidelity, late childbirth or the mourning of a relative. One of these people actually states that her suffering was beautiful. This is surely the thesis of the whole film. And vice versa, as sometimes beauty is uneasy and must be suffered to be appreciated. Perhaps the critics who label the film difficult are right, but this still shouldn’t discourage anyone. “Poetry” may be a bit longer, a bit slower than what some viewers are used to, and it may not look as gorgeous as some other poetic films out there, but it is truly a sublime work, one of the most beautiful films of the year.
“Poetry” is now available on DVD, Blu-ray and streaming on Netflix and Fandor, the latter through which you can watch the film free if you’re new to the service.
Recommended If You Like: “Secret Sunshine”; “Ikiru”; “The Tree of Life”