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Poetry

[Rating: 3.5/5]

“How many times have you seen an apple?”  the poetry professor asks his adult education class.  Jeong-hie Yun, recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, is one of his students.  “A hundred times?  A thousand?  Wrong!  You’ve never seen an apple before.  Not once.  To really see something is to observe it, to understand it, to converse with it.”  This, he says, is the key to writing poetry: really seeing the world around you.   His students have no idea what they’re in for.

Yun is the guardian of an utterly worthless teenage grandson, whose mother is too busy working in the city to take care of him.  She begs and berates him, and he ignores her.  She continues to believe that he is a good kid, just as she continues to believe that her intermittent difficulty finding words is just because she’s having an “off day” and is “scatter-brained.”  She puts the best face on everything, but no good poetry will ever be written that way.

A girl at her grandson’s school commits suicide, and he is connected to the crime, along with a group of boys, in a horrific way.  She learns this not from her grandson, who evades and blatantly lies to her, but from the fathers of the other boys.  They gather to handle the thing, by pooling enough money together to settle with the family of the deceased so that they don’t press charges.  The whole thing is handled in a very evasive, very businesslike fashion.  No one wants to look the truth in the face.  But no good poetry will be written that way, either.

Yun was recently voted the greatest movie star in Korean history; she’s Korea’s Katherine Hepburn, or take your pick.  She returns after 14 years of retirement to play, in “Poetry,” an elderly woman who takes on the daunting task of really seeing the world.  At first she seems more interested in writing pretty lines about pretty flowers, but…she changes.  I would like to say the change in her is astonishing, but the thing is, you may not even see it happening.  She transforms so slowly and subtly, so gloriously absent of “beats” or “lightbulbs” that you may not even notice the subtle gradations of her character arc.  And yet she is a very different person at the end of the film than she was at the beginning, and that is a small cinematic miracle.

“Poetry” is a slow, subtle movie, and that means it’s not for everyone.  Some people (myself included, usually) like to know what they’re watching; generally, cinematic storytelling happens in predictable ways, and it’s not hard to determine the purpose of each scene and sequence in a film.  Director Chang-dong Lee is up to something truer and more organic here.  I admit feeling lost in the middle of “Poetry,” waiting for something to happen.  But things were happening, they just weren’t always apparent, highlighted, and explained.  By the time I got to the end — to an amazing, memorable scene of a badminton game — I was sure I had seen something, been moved by something, and felt something, even if I didn’t understand it all.    And, as I’ve said before, that’s the mark of great cinema.  This is a memorable film, a difficult film, a masterly made film from an exciting new (to me, anyway) Korean director.   If you’re interested in cinema as art and not just as entertainment, you should check it out.

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