By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
Chang-dong Lee’s new dramatic film “Poetry” begins with children playing in weeds. Down the river, near the children’s play site, a large object drifts. It is a young girl’s body floating in the water.
Nearby, in the same medium-sized South Korean town, a lady in her mid-60s, Mija Yang (played by veteran South Korean actress Jeong-hee Yoon), waits to see her doctor. It turns out that the minor physical complaint Ms. Yang went in for is not her most serious problem.
She is told that she may have a degenerative disorder. They aren’t sure. They want to do more tests. She leaves with nothing resolved.
Jeong-hee Yoon has not made a film since 1994. Her performance here shows that she certainly shouldn’t retire. At no point does her face express a simple emotion. Her character struggles to keep a brave face, although the truth of her anguish comes through in her eyes.
Director Lee started out as a novelist. His obsession with telling a subset of stories within the film’s larger one can seem like a cumbersome literary device. Ultimately, though, he wants us to think about the nature of stories in general.
Ms. Yang’s point of view ultimately joins with everyone else’s, like one of the small brooks we see late in the film, which ends up joining the mighty ever-rushing river where the film began.
Lee, who also wrote the film, gives important details sparingly, but eloquently. Slowly but surely, we come to perceive the bigger picture.
Ms. Yang shares a small home with her grandson, Wook (Da-wit Lee). Wook seems to be a classic teenage boy, sullen and withdrawn around his elders. He appears to be oblivious to everything, except his television, his cell phone, and his computer.
The father of one of Wook’s friends introduces himself to Ms. Yang. The father (Ahn Nae-sang) seems cheerful and friendly at first. However, one of the more painful and realistic elements of
this film is that people seem to be at their friendliest when they have bad news and desperate plans on their minds.
At the poetry readings Ms. Yang attends, people recite their words, or the words of others. They blush, shyly smile, or tell sexually suggestive jokes.
Some of them seem off-putting at first.
But their humanity, revealed slowly in finer details, joins with Ms. Yang’s story to form a richer whole.
Soon, Ms. Yang has two more secrets — a devastating one concerning Wook and his friends, and another one concerning her employer, Mr. Kang (Hira Kim).
Mr. Kang is seriously disabled, and his own family seems indifferent. Only Ms. Yang can care for him, and eventually, get to know what’s going on in his troubled mind.
The dead girl, the dark hearts of certain characters, and the doctor’s diagnosis for Ms. Yang form cornerstones of the movie’s story. But what the viewer comes to see is that the film doesn’t start where the two story threads start. It joins them already in progress.
In the end, the small brooks of individual stories join together to form a river of experience and feeling. “Poetry” may break your heart. But it reminds you, splendidly, that you, and all others around you, have a heart. ♦
“Poetry” opens Friday, March 11, at Seattle’s Varsity Theatre, located at 4329 University Way N.E. Call 206-781-5755 for prices and show times.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at email@example.com.