Lee Chang-dong's new film, Poetry (2010), is the kind of film I would have squirmed my way through had I been forced to watch it when I was younger. It's a slow film, filled with quotidian details that summarize the life of a 66 year old woman in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease. Its main plotline, summarized in its title, follows her changing perceptions once she starts taking a class in writing poetry at her local community center. The movie is a good deal darker than that might suggest, because in learning to see with language--particularly with language that she's losing--she begins to see some very dark things around her. I'll come back to that in a bit, though. First, I need to point out that my younger self was an idiot. She wouldn't have responded to the gentle, but implacable insistence of this movie because she was impatient. She wanted things to happen in a hurry. It would have been her loss. As with the protagonist of Poetry, spending a lifetime with movies eventually does teach one to see, if you're up to it.
That gentle insistence that kept me watching stems from its opening scene, I think, in which a body is found floating in a river. It promises ominous things, things that tend to convert Lee's quiet scenes into menacing ones. The movie isn't a thriller, though, and the emotions it seeks to elicit aren't excitement. There is no adrenalin rush here. This is mainly a character study.
As I've noted, Poetry follows Mija, a 66 year old woman who makes her living as an occasional maid. She lives with her no-account grandson. Her daughter is off in the city looking for work. As the movie opens, Mija is beginning to forget words. This is, unsurprisingly, the onset of Alzheimer's, a diagnosis that the movie confirms later. Her employer is a stroke victim who makes sexual advances toward her, though these advances aren't entirely unwelcome. Mija's grandson has been identified as one of a group of kids who raped a girl who then jumped off a bridge. On her initial visit to the hospital at the beginning of the movie, Mija sees the girl's body arrive, along with her inconsolable family. The girl haunts Mija for the entire film, and as she looks for beauty around which to organize the poem she wants to write, she is stymied at every turn by the sheer ugliness of life around her. Finding poetry within this, it turns out, is the mission of the movie, and it builds to a haunting conclusion.
Through Mija's eyes and (especially) through her words, we see a life of struggle against casual misogyny that's so integral a part of the fabric of life that it's like white noise. That her employer is exploiting her seems relatively benign next to the fathers of the boys implicated as rapists, who are conspiring to buy off the victim's family, or even the blank-faced anomie of Wook (the grandson) and his friends, who seem to feel no remorse and live only to eat and play video games. There's something in the way Yun Jung-hee plays Mija that suggests a lifetime of ducking abuse. Her acquiescence to her employer, for instance, is played in such a way that it's obvious that this isn't the first "transaction" in her past. The way Yun Jung-hee's voice bleeds into the voice of the murdered girl at the end tells volumes about what the girl's story really means to her. She's that girl, only she soldiered on through an indifferent, hostile life.
This is Lee's quietest movie. All of the sound is diegetic; there is no score. His visual style is reportorial. His camera gathers information without trying to prejudice it. The points of the story are enough, though, and each piece of information is organized by the conceit of the poetry class into a quietly devastating denouement in which Mija vanishes from the screen, leaving behind only her poem and a profound sense of loss. This is very much a film about language. Words, in this film's universe, are talismans, and as Mija loses them and struggles to regain them, so too does she struggle for her own life's meaning.
It would be wrong to say that Lee's deadpan visual style is entirely reportorial, though. The film's opening image of the girl floating in the river sends a dark chill, while the film's final shot acts as a bookend. This comes after a montage of images notable by the absence of the film's star. This montage seems to me to be an evocation of the transience of life. Lee's last film, Secret Sunshine, struck me as an atheist's movie. This one does too. It's almost purely existential, in which the only meanings are those we make for ourselves. Mija's ability to make meaning is fleeting, flowing away with her words like a body floating down the river.