Lee Plays With Fire, Ice in 'Poetry'

By Lee Hyo-won
Staff Reporter

Emily Dickinson once said, "If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me I know that is poetry".

In his sixth feature film, "Poetry", which is set to compete at the Cannes Film Festival in May, Lee Chang-dong treats red-hot issues, ironically, with startling coolness. And the result? A shivering cold that numbs the heart and leaves a burning sting like hot ice.

Though the film is told through a relatively "softer" audiovisual language compared to his previous works, such as the emotional torpedo-inspiring "Secret Sunshine", it is no less riveting and visionary.

The analogue quality of the film (figuratively speaking) _ which also runs (or rather, slowly strolls) for 2 hours and 20 minutes _ may not initially appeal to today's audiences. Nevertheless, international festivals and art house cinemas will love it, and its poetically sparse language will translate for anyone willing to closely listen and feel the halting breaths in between.

Often the criteria for a good film lies in the unexpected, as the narrative unfolds in a mind-bending way with surprises that slap you in the face.

But the director seems to leap nimbly over this convention. The intentions and actions of the heroine become clear half-a-step before they happen, but this is probably an indication that the character he has created through the veteran actress Yoon Jung-hee is true to life, complete with flesh and blood.

Yoon called the venture her "second debut as an actress". Indeed, fans of the 1960s screen queen can forget the 300-plus films she has made before. Members of the younger generation who do not know her should have no problem at all _ everyone will be able to fall in love with probably one of the most memorable elder female characters in recent Korean cinema, alongside that of Kim Hye-ja in Bong Joon-ho's "Mother - 2009".

The 65-year-old plays the role of Mi-ja (which also happens to be Yoon's real name), a grandmother raising her teenage grandson in place of her divorced daughter in a small suburban town. She tries her best to make ends meet, with the tiny government subsidy for the elderly and doing household chores for a neighbor. It's not easy to lead a hand-to-mouth lifestyle, especially when dealing with a middle school boy (played by Lee David, who gives an impressive and natural performance) who locks himself in his room to tune into loud pop songs.

But Mi-ja nevertheless retains a childlike innocence and curiosity; her happiness in life is seeing food on her grandson's plate, and she flaunts her taste for hats and floral print fluffy dresses and smiles bashfully when neighbors compliment her style. One day she sees a notice for a poetry-writing class at the local cultural center and decides to give it a try _ "My grade school teacher once said I could grow up to be a poet; I do love flowers and say some of the strangest things", she says.

Our heroine thus becomes immersed in the world of poetry, of finding beauty and charm in the mundane. She takes note of tree leaves blowing in the wind, trying to whisper things to her, or an apricot that has fallen from a tree which "has thrown itself onto the ground in preparation for its next life" and jots everything down in her notebook.

Her goal is to write a piece of poetry, which she finds to be a most trying task. Mi-ja thus seeks out a poetry-reading club and befriends kindred spirits. But when Mi-ja learns of a shocking revelation, she must confront the ugly side of life, and moreover, take matters into her own hands.

The film makes a critical look into a family and society. But it is ultimately about the creative struggle and soul-searching process involved in maturing as an individual and as an artist _ to separate the individual that suffers from the mind that creates, to exemplify one's culture but at the same time leap over the confines of self, time and space to create something new and named.

Lee and Yoon both said they hope the film will instill dreams in the viewer; the shock factor is palpable, but "Poetry" shows that light will always cast dark shadows, and gloom is sometimes just the passing of a cloud overhead.

Coming to local theaters May 13