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De die in carpe diem

Poetry (2010)

Kino International

Mija (Yun Jung-hee) lives a quiet life in South Korea. She has a small apartment which she shares with her grandson Wook (David Lee), whose mother works in a different city and is connected to them only by phone. Mija is a carer for Mr. Kang (Kim Hi-ra), an elderly man who has had a stroke and is housebound. For the most part she is cheerful and uncomplaining, although her grandson's manners leave a great deal to be desired. Then three things happen: The first of which is that she decides to take a poetry class.

Mija tells her daughter and Mr. Kang — who seems to be her only friend — that she has always felt like a poet, and has decided it's time to find out whether or not she has anything to say. The teacher of the class is male, but the students are mostly women who drink up his advice. The class is the exception in Mija's world, which seems primarily to consist of men telling her what to do and why she should do it. But Mija has her own ideas, and "Poetry" is about her learning to express them before it’s too late.

The other two things are equally as important as the poetry class, but to reveal details in a review would be major a spoiler. Although it is safe to discuss Mija's trips to the hospital, where she spends a lot of time with her handbag in her lap, waiting. Lee Chang-dong's direction makes this a curiosity, as we try to figure out what Mija really feels about the two things. The visits matter not just for what the doctor reveals, but also for what she sees in the parking lot and how she chooses to react to it. There is also the way she is treated by her grandson and his friends — and later by the fathers of the friends — who all bow politely in greeting and then ignore her while expecting her presence. Wook emanates resentful entitlement combined with teenage ineptness, so news of his criminal behavior is — to Mija and to us — shocking and unbelievable. Although it maybe just a horrific extension of the rest of his attitude. It's no wonder the fathers want to sweep the whole situation under the rug. But Mija thinks it over, goes on a long bus ride, chats in a sunny field with a woman and comes to her own conclusions.

Mr. Lee's movie is a master class in accumulated and tactful understatement, and deserves every award it has won. In a way, it is a horror film, with Mija standing alone against two or three separate circumstances which could crush her. In a lesser movie, even one of those situations would be enough to cause all sorts of overblown drama. Instead, Mija goes to poetry readings. She watches how the poets present themselves and their work and takes notes about different styles and word choice. The subtitles are done well enough that it doesn't feel like anything is lost in translation. She is paying attention at last. The spaces in the movie are cramped, but filmed with the right amount of distance so that the screen feels small only by design. Kim Hyung-seok's beautiful cinematography is another kind of poetry supporting Ms. Yun's amazing performance. She is apparently a goddess of South Korean cinema with over 300 movies on her resume, although this was her first role in 16 years. It's easy to understand why.

The end of George Eliot's "Middlemarch" has that widely repeated quote about people who lived faithfully a hidden life and lie buried in unvisited tombs. There is no better way to explain why "Poetry" works. Mija has many chances to make other choices and no one would blame her if she decides to handle things differently. But she doesn't. She does exactly the right things, and in doing so learns to speak the truth both to herself and to others. The bravery and the ordinariness of her choices are astonishing, with an ending as redeeming and triumphant as any in cinema. Mr. Lee's powerful movie out of such ordinary material is an equal achievement.


Opens on May 6 in Los Angeles and on July 29 in Britain.

Written and directed by Lee Chang-dong; director of photography, Kim Hyung-seok; edited by Kim Hyun; production design by Sihn Jeom-hui; produced by Lee Joon-dong; released by Kino International (United States) and Arrow Films (Britain). In Korean, with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 19 minutes. This film is not rated by M.P.A.A. and 12A by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Yun Jung-hee (Mija), David Lee (Wook) and Kim Hi-ra (M. Kang).


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