A melancholic meditation on aging and death, Lee Chang-dong’s seminal masterpiece sees a grandmother with Alzheimer's struggle against the closing walls of her memory
Some films have the ability to "follow you around". To leave you pondering what the film was trying to say, and what it meant to you. Poetry is just such a film. A work drenched in sadness and reflections on a life as it nears its end.
Director Lee challenges us and our notions of self in Poetry. The helpless feeling of slipping into dementia, how the final passages of life can be passed and how those around you will react to such developments.
The film is also deeply mysterious. It is — as with all of Lee’s work — stunningly beautiful, but there is an enigmatic notion to the film. Like a puzzle too sagacious to solve at the first attempt, Poetry must be consumed, considered and then consumed again and again.
The story itself is simple, it is the themes and meanings that will enthral you for weeks and, most probably years, to come.
Yun Jung-hie plays grandmother Mija, who lives with churlish 16-year-old grandson, Jong-wook (Lee David), with his divorced mother living in Busan instead.
Reliant on government welfare which is supplemented with care work for an elderly man, Mija is diagnosed with early stage Alzheimer's disease and she begins attending weekly poetry reading sessions.
What seems to be a story about the battle against her memory and a desire to write poetry takes a tragic turn as Mija become entwined with a much more serious incident.
The film’s title is both a reasonable pointer towards its narrative and at times an assessment of the craft of poetry, but it also eschews any sentimentality that might come with other films on the topic. Mija’s search for poetic inspiration is as much a search for herself and life’s meaning.
Yun Jeong-hie came out of retirement to play the lead role and delivers a truly staggering performance, one where she gives Mija strength and resilience, while also demonstrating her fragility and fears.
The film won the Best Screenplay Award at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, while Yun picked up a host of local and international accolades for her searing and heart-felt portrait of a grandmother struggling against the closing walls of her memory as Alzheimer's takes over instead.
Director Lee has this ability to pack so much emotional punch into his films, you are left staggered and dazed. Poetry is a perfect demonstration of such filmmaking prowess.
We are our own thoughts and memories, and as those aspects start to flake away we are left to ponder what is left. At times, the confusion that Mija feels as her memories fail is transferred to the audience. The anger, the awkwardness, all there for us to feel.
For a film about the impact of fading memories, Poetry does a rather spectacular job of creating a character and story that is almost impossible to ever forget. Almost impossible…