Reviewed by John Stakes

Last Sunday’s contribution to what is proving to be an extremely varied season came from South Korean director Lee Chang-dong with his 2010 Cannes Film Festival best screenplay winner “Poetry”.

To cast this film Chang-dong managed to coax out of retirement Yoon Jeong-hee, a veteran actress of no less than three hundred films her last being in 1994. Jeong-hee plays her age as a sixty-six years old grandmother Yang Mija who lives off benefits apart from a small, poorly paid but demanding job of looking after an elderly stroke victim who, significantly, has all but lost his power of speech. She also has her selfish and spiteful teenage grandson Yong Wook living with her following his parents’ divorce. In addition to these difficulties Yang Mija finds herself suffering the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease as words, temporarily at first, fail her.

Against this background Yang Mija develops a keen interest in poetry and succeeds in enrolling with an adult poetry class notwithstanding that the registration period has expired. She learns to appreciate that true beauty in life can be achieved through poetry but, for quite some time, is unable to articulate in this medium. At this point one could be forgiven for thinking that Chang-dong is about to indulge himself and us in an exercise in oriental cinematic sentimentality enabling Yang Mija to achieve transcendental contentment despite her domestic difficulties. But Chang-dong takes us in a more quietly determined and profound direction.

In his own subtle and delicately understated way this director shows how Yang Mija gains insight into the world around her from her growing love of this rhythmically satisfying and tender use of language. She begins to see the world and nature in a new light, take control of her life and resolve its challenges particularly when her relationship struggles with her grandson take a huge turn for the worse and she is faced with a life-changing dilemma. She also realises that she has given everything to those around her who take all she has to offer and give nothing in return.

Yong Wook is found to be part of a teenage boy gang which has repeatedly raped a girl over a six months’ period. Yong Wook is indifferent to the enormity of his crime. The girl has kept a diary of her abuse which comes to light after she commits suicide by drowning, and what is thought to be her floating body is discovered in the film’s opening scene. To fend off a police investigation the school keeps quiet and the boys’ parents fund a hush-money payout and seek a contribution from Yang she cannot afford.

Confronted by this beauty and beast yin and yang manifestation Yang Mija sets in motion a train of seemingly unconnected events (each having a deeper significance than their surface appearance) to do justice to the girl’s death. On her journey of self discovery and ultimate fulfilment she manages to meet the warped demands of her local self-motivated community, bring her grandson to justice, and, unlike her classmates, find the right words by the water to turn her experiences into poetry. In the course of this Mija finds the strength to leave behind a tarnished world in which she is merely a servant of others by following in the footsteps of the girl and taking her own life.

This was subtle, hauntingly effective film making of the highest order. Its final fifteen minutes were masterstrokes of sublime but profound understatement as all the strands of the last hours of both victims fused and Mija’s plan and the significance of the opening sequence became clear. The beautiful and serene Jeong-hee was perfectly cast as Mija and rightly deserved her best actress award in 2011 from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. South Korean cinema has now produced two of the most intriguing “Mothers” in as many years and, for the watching public, patience is roundly rewarded.

Chang-dong, now age 57, has gained considerable success from a variety of artistic involvement. A novelist in his early career he went on to become a playwright and theatre director before turning his hand to the cinema relatively late in life. He has penned two screenplays before taking up his position behind the camera for each of his five films of which “Poetry” is the latest and for which he also wrote the screenplay. He even managed to find time to take on the role of Minister of Culture and Tourism in 2003/4 and is currently a member of more than one film jury. His inspiration for “Poetry” was drawn from a small town real life incident which, strangely he recalled whilst watching a TV nature programme in a hotel bedroom. He clearly has many sparks of artistic genius and we can look forward no doubt to several more films from his stable before his creative light dims.