Movie Night: Chang-dong Lee’s Poetry

Tucson isn’t the easiest places to see first-run art films, but I’m surprised by how often they actually arrive. I consider myself lucky to have been able to see two prime big-screen movies this year, Tree of Life and Melancholia, as they were meant to be seen, and while each of them held small disappointments, I found them absorbing enough to (sort of) wish for the days when I could attend films like that at a Sunday matinee at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas in Manhattan, a nine-block walk from my old apartment, with a little stroll in Central Park to think about whatever it was I had seen.

I’m not that contemplative in Tucson and am not always eager to see something on the big screen in the same way. Walking back out to a parking lot just doesn’t have the same appeal. I’ve been better about movie-going this year, though, and maybe my habits will change now that I’m kicking myself over having missed Poetry.

I’m a sucker for films with prominent female leads, and after the Los Angeles Film Critics voted Yun Jung-hee as Best Actress, the film shot to the top of my Netflix queue. Offhand, I may have been dissuaded from seeing it when print reviews reduced the film to a sober drama about an older woman dealing with the onset of Alzheimer’s by taking a poetry class. The story is more complex and riveting than that. The film opens with the discovery of a dead girl floating in a river, and the revelations of how and why she got there are a surprising entry point to the otherwise small drama of Mija, the older woman who gets by a tiny government subsidy and some part-time work taking care of a disabled man.

It was difficult not to think about what some writers might have made of the film’s embrace of poetry and observation as a vehicle for self-discovery. “Writing isn’t therapy,” I remember hearing as an undergraduate, but the privilege of putting words to paper is, in this film, brought back to its humanistic root. It’s treated here as a human urge, mostly ignored, that could provide great solace for its practitioners. Sometimes, for writers at a particular level (especially those of us who teach), it’s easy to forget that the act of writing is, for many, the first experience with truly reckoning the self within the world. Writers might recognize the itch for pastoral as soon as the flowers and trees appear, but for Mija, the exhortation to look and involve herself in making meaning turns her into a sharp observer. While there were many shots of Mija looking up into the shifting leaves of a tree or the petals of a flower before she scribbles away, there were also many camera setups which showed her as a newly keen observer of human nature, perhaps even awed by the difficulty of describing what has always been before her.

Indeed, for many of her classmates in the poetry class—the very act of searching for a subject goes hand in hand with self-determination, if not self-worth. At times, the film cuts to various students defining moments of beauty in their own lives: some struggle, but most come up with something, the building blocks for the single poem each is asked to write by the end of the class. Mija’s own life, though, is filled with far larger complications than her silence can potentially hold; for all its quiet pacing, Yun Jung-hee’s performance is tender-hearted on the surface, but her questions about how and why poetry comes to be voiced become the basis for her startling meditation on how poetry can best serve not her voice, but someone else’s. It’s really quite lovely—and startling—to see her progress toward her final act, all the while with some frustration about how others around her fail to see the world with any complication.

The composition of a key confrontation at the kitchen table brought me back to Tree of Life and Melancholia: I may have been dazzled by the cosmos and an encroaching planet, but the small drama at the head of a meager kitchen table may have rewarded me just as richly if I had given it a chance on the big screen.

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