Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry resembles much of what is great about the current cinema coming out of South Korea — for my money, some of the best in the world. With recent films like Oldboy, The Host, Mother and The Good, the Bad, the Weird, South Koreans have proven time after time that genre filmmaking can be exciting, while unique to their culture and vision. Whenever I see a new South Korean film, I am again shattered by the gorgeous cinematography and expert story-telling told through a heightened emotion and indelible quirk that we just don’t see in modern American films.
Opening up on a serene river view, Poetry starts sweetly enough, showcasing the beautiful rural landscapes outside of Seoul. Much like the rest of the film, however, something unusual catches our eye to break us out of this bliss — in this case, a body quietly floating downstream. This image haunts the viewer throughout the opening acts even as it is unexplained — what is its connection to our elderly protagonist Mija (played wonderfully by Yun Jeong-hie), a woman looking for life surrounded by those who exploit it?
To the film’s benefit, Lee Chang-dong doesn’t push himself or his audience to figure out everything that’s on the surface. Poetry weaves through Mija’s life slowly, letting the horrific circumstances build to natural and devastating emotions. And interestingly, unlike many films, the incidents surrounding a young woman floating down the river aren’t our main focus. Instead, they only serve as impediments in opposition to the primary story-line, Mija enrolling in a poetry class in order to find a hidden beauty in the world. This balance works wonderfully as a profile of our character — much like our own lives, we aren’t dominated by bad things that happen to us, but they inevitably shape the decisions we make and the people we become.
Poetry fits right in with the recent output from South Korea, although it may be a little less accessible for an American audience. It certainly has elements of the grotesque, but it is far less action-driven than the films I mentioned in this review’s opening. It may fit in better with the Korean melodramas from the early parts of the decade — really wonderful films like Failan, Sad Movie or Il Mare (remade in Hollywood as The Lake House; yes, the one starring Keanu Reeves), and perhaps Lee’s previous film Secret Sunshine, which I have regrettably yet to see. Still, the film straddles these two paths of the post Korean New Wave well, balancing the bleakness with the joy.
At a run time of two hours and twenty minutes, many might call the film “boring”, and there are certainly moments in the film that seem drawn out or and too slowly paced, but this is mostly by design. The film won’t do an ADD-culture viewer any favors with its slow, deliberate pace and distanced view of its characters as their lives simply play out. The film keeps its audience interested by letting unanswered questions boil over and be addressed naturally within the frame of its characters’ lives. Overall, it does lack the energy of many other Korean genre dramas, which prevents me from holding it quite on the same level. Still, Poetry speaks many important truths about life, in both its bleakness and its beauty.