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[HanCinema's Hall of Fame Review] "Poetry": Empathetic Cinema at its Finest

2014/03/22 | Permalink

In the Spotlight this Week: Lee Chang-dong's "Poetry"...

The American writer and poet Maya Angelou once said: "There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you". In "Poetry", Lee Chang-dong's last film, this affliction is brought to bear on an aging soul who so desperately searches for meaning, peace, and poetry. Lee's short filmography is impressive, and reflects the wills of a storyteller who seeks the substance behind mere matters and modern mayhem. His compelling ruminations are romantic and robust; graphic poems that present hardships and hope in visual verses that demand both our attention and praise. This award-winning film drew inspiration from a real-world rape case in Korea, a Japanese television program on nature, and, of course, Lee's own storytelling genius and acute appreciation of the human condition.

Yang Mi-ja (played by veteran actress Yoon Jung-hee, who was pulled from retirement especially for the film) is tired. She's pushing into her mid-sixties and her mind is drifting away from her. Slowly but surely this soft soul is being washed away by the current of time; a degeneration of the mind that triggers in her the desire to seek out a new appreciation through poetic inspirations. She has early signs of Alzheimer's disease, little personal wealth to speak of, a disrespectful sloth of a grandson she has to care for by herself. Her life is tittering and threatens to tumble when she hears that her grandson (David Lee as Jong-wook) was involved in the gang rape of a young schoolgirl; a horrific act that led to the girl taking her own life by jumping off a lonely country bridge.

The rest of the gang's fathers approach Yang, and together they plan to assemble a sizeable sum to payoff the mother of the deceased. Yang's is dependant on government welfare, and the petty pay she receives as a housekeeper to an old man, and simply doesn't have the means to amass the cash needed to save her grandson's future and face. However, before she hears of Jong-wook's part in the girl's death, Yang enrols in a poetry class at her local community centre, hoping that it will inspire her to see the world anew before time and circumstance claim her.

"Poetry" has no soundtrack. Like the Japanese nature show that helped inspire it, the film is meditative and present. Dreamy and thoughtful shots persist throughout as Yang slowly discovers beauty amongst the anarchy of her trying predicament. Lee has us listening to babbling brooks, whispering winds, and, in general, points our attention to the surrounding world and its cries. Like Yang, the viewer must wandering and wallow in each scene, absorbing both the disappointment and beauty our heroine stumbles through. The film, not unlike the signatures of Hong Sang-soo ("The Power of Kangwon Province", "Nobody's Daughter Haewon", "Our Sunhi"), does an uncanny job of depicted human relationships in such as way as to expose a softer, sometimes cruel or even heartless, form of our condition. It's a masterly talent that adds great depth to characters that seem simple and insignificant, but are raised to titans within Lee's empathetic dream-machine. 

Cine-poet Lee Chang-dong has but five films in his notebook, each a stunning event that examines the peculiarities of modern life and the souls that tour it. They are flecked with modern socio-cultural themes, yet presented through the eyes of one who seemingly has access to past, present, and future. And the results are relatable and deeply moving. Yang's story in "Poetry" wants so desperately to be told, it wants to come out, to be released, before her mind drifts away and her soul departs. The childlike wonderment she exudes is pure, uncomplicated, and inspirational. And as she challenges herself to see the world in a new light, this chic granny smith will dig deep to pen her first and last poem for the world to recite. Stunning.  

- C.J. Wheeler (


Available on Blu-ray and DVD from YESASIA and Amazon

Blu-ray (US) (En Sub) Blu-ray UK (En Sub) Blu-ray (En Sub) DVD Single Disc (En Sub) DVD (TW - English Subtitled)

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