Poetry – Lee Chang-Dong's return to literature

Yael Tujsnaider

Premiered at Cannes Film Festival in 2010 and presented in our country during BAFICI (Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema), Poetry is Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-Dong's last masterpiece. As in his previous films, Lee Chang-Dong sets forth, in a harsh manner, the senselessness of life; he illustrates tragedy naturally, without dramatic effects or disagreeable surprises. Lee is interested in the stereotype of heroic characters; his film is one of common people, simple people, and even outcasts. Poetry shows Mija's day-by-day life, an invisible, ignored woman suddenly going through a moral conflict over which she has to make a decision. Like a heroine of a Greek tragedy, she knows that in either way she looses, however, only one choice is, in fact, ethical. As in his other films, Lee reflects on social conflicts, he reveals a Korean society in decay, proposing the recovery of the past and of the memory.

In the opening scene, the credits roll over a wide-angle shot of a river; the camera brings closer some kids playing by the shore. A boy comes across a dead body floating that approaches the shore and then the camera discovers the young girl. Over this image, the title of the film, Poetry, appears.

The dead body belongs to a girl who, after being raped by a gang of schoolmates, commits suicide. To avoid the scandal and police investigation, the boys' parents decide to save their children's honor by paying off a large amount of money to the girl's mother by way of compensation. Among the boys is Wook, Mija's grandson.

Mija is an elderly grandmother of 65, who lives with her 16-year-old grandson, and works looking after an old man who had suffered a brain paralysis. Mija is a simple, hard-working woman, who is always well dressed with colorful, eye-catching clothes. Her pride and vanity are perceived; it is suspected that she had been a beautiful woman who had had a difficult life.

Mija takes a poetry class; she mentions that when she was a child people said she had potential, but perhaps, she is just looking for a meaning to her life. Lee establishes a subtle relationship between poetry and memory. During the first class, the teacher states that in order to write a poem one must rename things. He gives the example of an apple: it is necessary to watch it, sense it, smell it, discover it and then describe it, as if it were for the first time. At the beginning of the film, Mija mentions casually that sometimes she does not remember some simple words.

During the whole film, the camera follows Mija's day-to-day life as she passively deals with her inner conflict: to obtain the money to save her grandson, although she doesn't believe she should and condemns his behavior. The grandson ignores her, mistreats her and she does not tell him, until the end of the film, that she knows what he has done. Mija escapes from the reality that tortures her, but she does not run away, she simply immerses herself in her fantasies, and gets obsessed with not being able to write a poem, just a poem. She looks at the apple, the flowers, the trees, but cannot think about anything, she just manages to take notes on a notepad. Then, it is just one question that goes through the whole film: how to write a poem. When she succeeds in doing so, her dilemma will be settled, and she will be able to physically and mentally, let go.

The choice of invisible characters, to give voice to the weaklings, to the ones that are not part of the dominant speech, is a feature of Lee's filmography. Mija is taciturn, lonely, and misunderstood; people make fun of her. However, she doesn't realize this; she has poetry and that saves her. The rescue of poetry that the film suggests is connected with the pessimism that surrounds Lee Chang-Dong regarding motion picture theater as a mass media nowadays. "People don't enjoy ambiguous films. They used to respect what they convey, now they get angry". At the age of 40, Lee left his career as writer to start directing; he thought that was the instrument to reach out to people. Nowadays, he seems disappointed with film production and consumption, and tries to return to his first passion, literature.

Although Lee has never done conventional films, nor respected the classical structures of genre cinema, usual in the Korean film industry, his prior films had a melodramatic structure. Poetry is, probably, the film where he leaves the genre completely. Most likely, because of that, Poetry has not had a massive acceptance among the Korean audience that has always acclaimed his films. Nonetheless, this freedom from structures has allowed him to experiment with other stylistic forms. This is the case of more appealing scenes in the film, a sudden shift that deflects and slows down the plot. In two of the scenes, students from the poetry class describe "the most beautiful moment of their lives". Secondary characters, looking at the camera, confess themselves; the frame is simple and the camera is fixed. They don't seem to be professional actors, and the audience cannot know whether they are telling the truth or not; however, it does not matter, whether fact or fiction, it is about a moment of absolute truth.

In an interview, Lee Chang-Dong stated: "Tears are emotional. Tears mean that the film was moving; however, once the audience leaves the room, those tears mean nothing". Through a more adequate use of the documentary rather than that of fiction, Lee appeals to the audience to search among their own memories. Disappointed by postmodern times, Lee yearns for a journey to the past.

The final scene in the film is also a discovery. The poetry teacher reads Mija's poem; she is the only student who completed the assignment and who is absent. While an off-screen voice recites the poem, the camera travels across familiar spaces that are now empty. Mija reports her grandson to the police; she immerses herself in her fantasy, and leaves this world to reunite with the young girl. She succeeds in writing a poem; perhaps, what Lee Chang-Dong tries to transmit is that in these postmodern times, salvation lies in poetry.


  • KIM YOUNG – JIN, Lee Chang-dong, Seul, Ed. Seoul Selection, 2007