Lee Chang-dong is a special and unique filmmaker. The plot of Poetry begins in a deceptively simple way. Diverse people wait in rows of seats; in a single, wide shot, we are given time to observe each in turn, speculating on which of them might be the central character of the story to come. Finally, a name is called, and an elderly but still attractive woman – Mija (Yun Junghee), always dressed in bright, floral patterns – rises. We will soon learn that Mija is exhibiting the early signs of Alzheimer’s Disease, such as forgetting certain everyday words.
But this is only one thread, only one possible motor in the entire narrative diagram of Poetry. Before this scene, in fact, we have had a prologue seemingly straight out of a downbeat portrait of contemporary teenage life, like River’s Edge (1986) or a Larry Clark film: the corpse of a teenage girl floats, face down, through the water where children innocently play.
As Poetry proceeds, in its slow and deliberate way, other centres of attention also emerge: such as the old man whom Mija cares and cleans for; her sullen and disturbed grandson, who could be a study in teen alienation from the Japanese film All About Lily Chou-Chou (2001); and the local art centre’s poetry class that Mija shyly attends.
Just as Lee kept all possible stories in play and in suspense in that early shot of people waiting, he also takes his time in drawing these various narrative threads together. After seeing her doctor, for example, Mija walks past, and briefly ponders, the public, hysterical tears of the dead girl’s mother. That old man will come to figure in matters of sex and money; and Mija’s grandson (his mother is absent for almost the entire film) will be implicated, along with his school friends, in the repeated rape and brutalisation of the suicided girl.
But we can never be exactly sure, as events unfold, how any one thread will eventually be used to resolve a problem in a neighbouring thread. We watch the slow encounter or coincidence of fate-lines, of ethical responsibilities – a web of actions that indirectly lead to decisions of enormous consequence, especially on Mija’s part.
The shape of the whole plot is the shape of any one shot, and also the shape of each scene – an astonishing coherence that is the mark of a great filmmaker. Every time a scene begins in Poetry, it gradually unfolds in all the planes of the foreground, middle-ground and background, with characters entering or exiting the frame – but we never know quite who will move into view or what action he or she will precipitate. In the cinema of Lee Chang-dong, moment-by-moment surprise is a question of morality, of values, of commitment to the world and its tiny but absolute betterment.
Lee is a brave storyteller. His films can seem like Disease of the Week telemovies from the USA, with their noble, sympathetic fixation on illnesses and disabilities of the mind and body. Lee speaks up for the rights of people who are often accorded very few rights in our society: the elderly, the homeless, the young, the pathologically shy.
He confronts us with frank visions of sexuality – the disabled couple in Oasis (2002), the sad, silent, old man on Viagra in Poetry – and with unreadably blank, cruel behaviours. It is close to the panoramic vision of Edward Yang in Yi Yi (2000) or Mahjong (1996), but without that master filmmaker’s bleak cynicism.
With his attachment to what is unfashionable – the very prospect of a film about a poetry class is enough to turn off many potential viewers! – Lee reaches for hope, for inspiration, and even for catharsis in his audience. But it is an emotional catharsis that is, for a change, richly earned by cinema.
By chance, the night before viewing this magnificent film – among the best of recent years – I caught an intriguing Australian production, My Year Without Sex (2009) by ex-animator Sarah Watt, on cable TV. This, too, is a risky story about illness, recovery, stress and dysfunction in a family context. But where Lee dilates and explores space, story, time and character, Watt hurries, compresses, tries too hard to keep us distracted and entertained. The eventual catharsis is predictable and formulaic.
By contrast, the Antonioniesque montage with which Poetry concludes – underlining the disappearance of its central figure, and finally giving a face and a voice to the dead girl – creates a profound, indelible emotion.
© Adrian Martin August 2010