Fortunately, there are so many rich international films in release this Spring (in the big cities, anyway) that I don't have time to lament the dearth of quality fare from American filmmakers. (Maybe Cannes, Memorial Day Weekend and "Tree of Life" will bring some more exciting American filmmaking into the local cineplex..)
Last Friday I settled in at one of my favorite Chicago screening rooms, the Gene Siskel Film Center, to experience Korea's "Poetry", which earned critical raves and a Screenplay award at Cannes last year.
The above trailer is a terrific summary, offering enough plot without spoilers, with a nice feel for the mood and look of the movie.
"Poetry" is a movie about really hearing and seeing what we ignore every day, about expressing one's self with complete honesty, and about the courage it takes to create poetry.
This quiet film is filled with startling plot developments, remarkable visuals and sound, and a central character of such warmth and honesty that we may forget we are watching a performance. This is exactly the kind of aesthetically pleasing, challenging and satisfying film that I crave, and find too rarely from American filmmakers.
Director Lee Chang-dong underplays the melodrama, allowing the languor of everyday life to pervade a bittersweet story that deals with such things as the meaning of poetry, the tragedy of a young suicide, the breakdown of civility between generations, loyalty, sexual blackmail, a life-altering poetry class, and the grandmother who finds meaning even as she starts to forget words.
In "Poetry", Yoon Jeong-hee plays Yang, a grandmother to a surly and uncooperative teen-aged boy who might have participated in the rape of a classmate, Agnes, who commits suicide. Yang is presented as a free-spirited sort, somewhat absent-minded and good-natured. She dotes on her grandson and speaks pleasantly with those around her, especially an old stroke-afflicted man who employs her to clean house and bathe him. When Yang finds out she has early symptoms of Alzheimer's disease, she enrolls in a poetry-writing class.
As Yang immerses herself into intense observation of life around her, she also begins to see her grandson in a new way. Along with discovering the beauty in the everyday, Yang also understands the ugliness of what is occurring around her, and begins to form a strange attachment to the deceased Agnes.
In equal measure, Yang finds empathy for those in pain, yet forms a hard shell against her own inevitable sorrow in her life's final journey. She records her impressions of the objects and sounds in her midst.
Sound is an important part of the texture. There is no music score, only sound effects, and ambient sounds of nature, as well as the mechanical noises of modern life. The rush of wind through trees, or the songs of unseen birds, take on an importance that we rarely encounter on the big screen.
Yoon Jeong-hee is in every scene; she is so natural as Yang, that she nearly bursts through the screen. (Well, maybe burst is too strong a word...but you get the idea.)
Photographed exquisitely, with an ever darkening palate to express the increasing gloom of her world-view, and her empathy with Agnes, Yang is determined to do right by the girl's mother. Yang will also settle the scores with those around her; as each plot development is resolved, Yang becomes like an unwitting Godfather of her own fate.
Finally, as she completes her poem (she is the only student in her class to do so), and suddenly cannot be found, the beautiful and enigmatic words, along with the imagery of water and pictures of the girl, suggest that Yang's fate is tied inextricably with that of Agnes.
Yang discovers that to live and die observantly, sensitively, honestly, is an act of poetry.
I cannot recommend "Poetry" highly enough to serious filmgoers, who prefer depictions of real life and real people to those of Marvel comic fantasies.
I thought it would be fitting to end this review with some notes I quickly jotted down after the film ended; and with Yang's final poem, (written by Director Lee Chang-dong) which is told in the voice of the young girl:
--"Poetry" is about looking at things well. We have looked at an apple 100 times, but have never seen it.
--A good poet writes honestly what she feels, as though taking notes.
--To write poetry is to seek beauty.
--Poetry should be freed from the heart and allowed the freedom of a butterfly.
--Do you have the heart to write a poem?
--Each member of the class is called to the front of the classroom, to describe the most beautiful moment in each of their lives.
I wonder how each of us would respond to that assignment?
How is it over there?
How lonely is it?
Is it still glowing red at sunset?
Are the birds still singing on the way to the forest?
Can you receive the letter I dared not send?
Can I convey…
the confession I dared not make?
Will time pass and roses fade?
Now it's time to say goodbye
Like the wind that lingers and then goes,
just like shadows
To promises that never came,
to the love sealed till the end.
To the grass kissing my weary ankles
And to the tiny footsteps following me
It's time to say goodbye
Now as darkness falls
Will a candle be lit again?
Here I pray…
nobody shall cry…
and for you to know…
how deeply I loved you
The long wait in the middle of a hot summer day
An old path resembling my father's face
Even the lonesome wild flower shyly turning away
How deeply I loved
How my heart fluttered at hearing faint song
I bless you
Before crossing the black river
With my soul's last breath
I am beginning to dream…
a bright sunny morning…
again I awake blinded by the light…
and meet you…
standing by me.