With geriatric sex and teen suicide, Lee Changdong’s Poetry is no sensationalist exploitation drama, but a dark, tender coming of (old) age.
More Than Words by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers.
Parental guilt seems to be de rigueur these days. With Lynne Ramsay’s We Need To Talk About Kevin and Susanne Bier’s In A Better World both on the miniplex horizon, generational angst is on the up. It’s a reflective response to the violence marring our news broadcasts, and none highlights better than Lee Changdong’s Poetry the contagious loss of innocence. Opening on a river, carrying the face-down corpse of a high school rape victim, Poetry recalls the country backwater of Shohei Imamura’s The Eel. But with comeback queen Yoon Jeong-hee in the starring role as a mildly eccentric grandmother, it’s an erotic mystery of a very different kind.
Poetry begins as a sexagenarian character study, as flamboyantly dressed Mija Yang moseys from the cramped flat where she cooks for her surly teenaged grandson to the well-to-do apartment where she cleans up for and bathes stroke-afflicted yet randy Mr Kang or to the poetry class where she struggles to grasp poetic inspiration or to the doctor’s surgery where she complains about failing to find her words and learns about the onset of Alzheimer’s. But the film’s haunted by the suicide of young schoolgirl Agnes Park Heejin, as she witnesses the schoolgirl’s mother’s raw grief outside the clinic or questions her horizontally apathetic grandson Wook. But when she finds out he was part of a clique of six boys who raped her in the science lab, her emotional confusion is matched only by her own loss of innocence.
No longer chirping like a skylark, she swallows her recriminations, rifling suspiciously through her son’s bedroom and crying to herself in the shower. Slowly initiated into a paternal plot to save their sons’ future by paying the mother off with 30 million won in compensation, she assumes her grandson’s guilt, paying the blood money through sex with Viagra-popping Mr Kang, becoming herself the second victim of the same unconfessable crime. And it’s an affinity bound by poetry, as Mija’s reading of her poem segues into Agnes’ own voice, and by blood, as she jumps to her death from the same bridge.
Like the apricot throwing itself to the ground, trampled and crushed ready for its next life, suicide here is a poetic end to a bittersweet life, opening oneself again to the potential of the blank page. Like the red camellias she adores, flowers of winter and pain, her love of poetry grows – from birdsong reflections, raindrops and karaoke to her plaintive opus Agnes’ Song. But her poetry is addled with by illness, as her musing over apples and trees turns into sitting drenched in the rain and wandering carelessly across roads. The question Poetry asks most fervently is, where does poetic feeling end and Alzheimer’s begin?
With its digital aesthetic, Poetry is not conventionally cinepoetic, with none of the textural evocations of Tran Anh Hung or the rhythmic cadences of Wong Kar Wai. But for a film that stresses seeing the lyrical in the everyday and experiencing the fullness of objects, Lee Changdong’s film is apposite. And uniquely mesmerising, with its third-age self-reinvention, generational conflict in close-up and its grandmother taking on the sins of irresponsible youth. And with an enchanting performance by Yoon Jeong-hee, it’s also murkily rewarding. Like the rippling river that opens and closes the film, Poetry is a sparkling stream of story and ideas. But with a very dark undercurrent.
Poetry is released in the UK on 29th July 2011