- FILM & PEOPLE
- K-Cinema Library
Nov 24, 2020
- Writerby Pierce Conran
2010 | 139 MIN | Drama
DIRECTOR LEE Chang-dong
CAST YOON Jeong-hee, LEE Da-wit, KIM Hee-ra, AN Nae-sang
RELEASE DATE May 13, 2010
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By the time his fifth film came into being, LEE Chang-dong was already recognized as one of, if not the, greatest Korean filmmakers. Yet with Poetry (2010) the director managed, in many people’s eyes, to surpass himself. Invited to the competition section of the Cannes Film Festival in 2010, his latest featured all the social subtext and literary force of his previous works, but did so with the lightest of touches, creating an evocative portrait of a character grappling with her memories and humanity, in a story that only hints at the horrors hidden within its stillness and leads to a devastating climax that screams its terrible truths without so much as a whisper.
Mi-ja (YOON Jeong-hee) is an elderly woman who lives with her grandson (LEE Da-wit) in a small town. Her daughter never comes to visit and doesn’t even send money to Mi-ja, who lives modestly, adding ever so slightly to her pension by being a maid for a local man who needs help after suffering a stroke. Mi-ja is also suffering from an ailment, after recently being diagnosed as being in the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease. She joins a poetry class in the local community center, her goal being to be able to express herself through one poem by the end of the month-long program.
Soon after, she is contacted by the father (AN Nae-sang) of one of her grandson’s school friends. She is brought to a gathering as one of the guardians of six middle-school boys who, she suddenly discovers, gang-raped a classmate for months on end until she ended her life by throwing herself off a nearby bridge just a few days earlier. The five fathers agree that they will compensate the girl’s mother to the tune of KRW 30 million (USD 30,000) to hush up the incident. Mi-ja does not have the KRW 5 million (USD 5,000) required of her and while she grapples with the severity of her grandson’s actions over the coming days, she continues to look for inspiration to write her poem.
In the role of Mi-ja, LEE cast the venerable star YOON Jeong-hee, the doyen of screen actresses in the 1970s, known for Night Journey (1977) and Splendid Outing (1977), among many other classics. Her casting in Poetry (2010) was notable, as she had not appeared on screen since 1994, and hasn’t again since. With her colorful and naively tacky attire and her often childlike and naive behavior, YOON is ingratiating and naturalistic in a singular performance that drew her some of the best acclaim of her career. She was even being mentioned as a possible Best Actress candidate at the Academy Awards, but her chances sadly dropped when Poetry (2010) was surprisingly not selected as that year’s official Korean submission to the Best Foreign Language category.
With Poetry (2010), Director LEE presented audiences with something that demanded more engagement. The film’s astonishing, ellipsis-filled conclusion leaves everything to the imagination, forcing viewers to connect the dots and interpret the story’s final lingering images. The jury at Cannes was clearly enamored, giving LEE the Best Screenplay Award that year. Eight years later, LEE would once again place his truth in audiences to figure out for themselves the events of his next film, his slow-burn thriller BURNING.