What’s in a name?  Quite a bit if you’re investing in a movie. Just ask the people behind the unfortunately titled Failure to Launch.

Naming a movie Poetry seems like it might be an extreme act of filmmaking hubris. But this exquisite film by South Korean writer and director Lee Chang-dong lives up to its presumptuous name. It is indeed a two-and-a-half hour cinematic poem.

Poetry is the tale of a quiet, unassuming older woman, Mija, played with almost incandescent grace by veteran actress Yun Jun-hee, returning to the screen after a 16-year sabbatical. Mija drifts through life, waiting upon undeserving others, such as her slacking, resentful grandson Wook and her demanding employer, an older gentleman who has suffered a paralyzing stroke. In her pretty floral outfits and youthful hats, Mija appears to be living in a dream world. She is painfully undervalued by those around her, but by the end of the film they realize that they have underestimated her strength.

The beginning of the movie offers two seemingly unrelated stories. An adolescent schoolgirl is found in a river, the apparent victim of suicide. Meanwhile, we meet Mija as she visits a doctor about weakness in her arm. The doctor is more concerned about her memory loss – Mija is forgetting common nouns – and suggests that she travel to Seoul to a more sophisticated hospital. As Mija leaves, she is mesmerized by the raw and public grief of the schoolgirl’s mother who has just learned of her daughter’s death. We soon find that the two stories are connected in a terrible and tragic way.

With a confirmed diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s, Mija enrolls in a poetry class at the local community center. The class is already full, but we see just how charming and persuasive Mija can be. She talks her way into the class and begins her quest for creative inspiration in earnest. While she is frustrated by her inability to write a poem, we glimpse the power of her observations and words through quick notes she records in a little journal. It is not difficult to believe that this modest, decorous woman has the soul of a poet.

What might have been a bittersweet tale of fulfilling one’s dream late in life takes a gruesome turn when Mija is approached by the father of one of her grandson’s gang of friends. Escorted to a meeting of other fathers, Mija finds out that the schoolgirl, Hee-jin, had kept a journal chronicling a series of gang rapes she was subjected to at the hands of Wook and the other boys. The school is eager to bury the story and the local police are willing to turn a blind eye. The fathers have asked Mija to join them in offering a substantial financial settlement to Hee-jin’s family.

The men are not monsters; after all, they are just being practical. As one of the fathers chillingly states, “Although I feel sorry for the dead girl, now is the time for us to worry about our boys.”

The men, sharing a friendly drink while they strategize, wonder whether the sex was consensual (“But who would believe that?” shrugs one) and observe nonchalantly that the girl wasn’t even that pretty. As Mija sits with these men, she is treated courteously but with smug condescension. It is not difficult to understand why she relates more to “the dead girl” than to “our boys.” As the horror of what has happened – not to mention what she is being asked to become party to – floods her, Mija appears to shrink before our eyes. In this scene, and countless others, Yun amazes the viewer with a performance so precise and finely tuned, it is no surprise to learn that a recent poll named her the greatest actress in Korean cinema.

Initially, Mija appears to go along with the plan to pay Hee-jin’s family, but her heart begins to resist. She breaks into Wook’s room and pounds on his computer keyboard, desperately searching for something but frightening herself when his deafening music comes on. She attends Hee-jin’s memorial service but leaves when some schoolgirls recognize her. She confronts her grandson late one night but can’t follow through.

Meanwhile, she pursues her quest for poetic inspiration, attending readings, observing apples, trees, flowers and eventually visiting the bridge from which Hee-jin ended her young life. A poet mentor has advised her that great poetry must come from great truth. Gradually, Mija finds and accepts her own truth about her grandson’s situation and what she must do. Her conviction and the choices she makes are shocking but heroic.

Despite the cruelty and violence inherent in the plot of Poetry, every action and reaction dramatized is quiet and contained. Even the grandest acts of tragedy and redemption feel intimate and deeply private. This is no sweeping epic, but rather a small jewel box of a film carved in ornate and exacting detail. It is remarkable.

The true wonder of this movie is that there are two discrete plots happening throughout at virtually the same time: an elderly woman’s creative reaction to her inevitable cognitive impairment, and the story of a desperate girl, victimized first by classmates and then by society. Either might have provided the foundation for its own powerful film. In combining the two however, Lee Chang-dong’s brilliant Poetry transcends the power of either individual story and elevates the whole to a truly poetic level.

Lee has assembled an outstanding supporting cast, including Lee David as the sullen grandson, Kim Hi-Ra as Mija’s employer Mr. Kang, Park Myung-shin as Hee-jin’s grieving mother, and Ahn Nae-sang as the disarmingly charming father of one of Wook’s friends. But these nuanced portrayals serve mainly as a frame for Yun’s exquisite and heartbreaking performance. It is undeniably her movie.

In the final minutes, the poetry teacher learns that Mija is the only student who has completed the course’s assignment and written a poem. In voiceover, we hear “Agnes’ Song,” a heartbreakingly beautiful tribute to Hee-jin (Agnes was her Christian name). The poem, written in the dead girl’s voice, is at once a celebration of her life, and an indictment of those who stole it from her. At the end of Poetry, Mija does more than write her poem. She is able to speak for the story’s young victim and assure that her death will have repercussions. Neither Mija nor Hee-jin will leave this Earth in silence.

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  • Jim Delande March 28, 2011 at 1:42 pm

    Wow. Great review, interesting movie.