Sensitive, almost to a fault, Lee Chang Dong’s Poetry is a well-observed but minor effort from one of the top Korean filmmakers. Centered on Mija, a woman in her sixties who discovers that she is afflicted by the first stirrings of dementia, the film is a quiet study in repression. It traces Mija’s struggle toward articulation of her emotions, most expressly during scenes that show her enrolled in an adult education poetry course. There’s little plot to be found in Poetry, but most of what is there involves Mina’s discovery that her loutish grandson has been involved in a group rape of a girl that culminated in her suicide. Mina’s gradual process of identification with the dead girl becomes the movie’s emotional arc, which both helps to clarify the director’s attitude toward her illness and helps to confirm Poetry as yet another significant entry in the oeuvre of a director whose work has become increasingly centered on women’s suffering.
Like Lee’s earlier Oasis and Secret Sunshine, Poetry lives and dies by the quality of its leading actress’ performance. Yun Jung Lee, who plays Mija, doesn’t let her director down. She anchors every scene of the film, creating a character who is alternatively flighty, devoted, and despairing. Her struggles to assert herself emotionally are the film’s central concern, which gives her performance ample opportunity to shine. “The point is the feeling,” an amateur poet tells her while describing her writing process, and where Ms. Lee succeeds is in helping us to understand her uncertainty about her conflicting emotions. Elsewhere, director Lee’s devotion to women can be felt. Most of the men here are emotionally stunted louts. Even the one male who is attempts to describe his feelings in Mina’s poetry class talks somewhat superficially in comparison to the parade of women who rhapsodize about the glories of childhood or love.
Much of Poetry is spent watching Mija play an amateur detective, as she attempts to understand her grandson’s crime, or watching her scribble phrases in her poetry notebook. This makes for a singularly quiet and observational film, which creates mixed results. Many of the lyrical moments here (e.g. Mija’s hat blows off her head, into the river in which the young girl threw herself) work toward an intended, unmissable effect, diluting their impact. Mija’s few emotional outbursts seem somewhat uncharacteristic, given the film’s ultimate trajectory. Still, the overriding feeling of empathy that comes to dominate Poetry grows moving by the film’s inevitable final sequence. In many respects, this could be seen as a subtler companion piece to Bong Joon-ho’s Mother, which examined similar issues of death and devotion. Next to the sheer anguish displayed in Secret Sunshine, Poetry’s quiet despair seems bit slight, but its subtlety makes it a singular experience.