If you are beloved Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-dong, you are having one hell of a good week.
First, your 2007 masterpiece Secret Sunshine has not only found its way into the Criterion Collection this week, but thanks to Kino International, the much adored Korean auteur’s latest effort, the 2010 (or for many 2011) stunner, Poetry, has hit Blu-ray as well. And you better have some money, because Poetry joins the aforementioned Criterion-approved film as some of the best bits of Korean cinema produced in this still young century.
Poetry follows the story of Yang Mija. A nearly 70-year old grandmother and maid, Mija uses her small earnings from her day job to not only take care of her angst-ridden grandson, but also start taking a poetry class at a local community college. Told to right down notes of things that she sees, Mija discovers not only the nature surrounding her, but also that her grandson has joined in his friend’s routine raping of a female classmate. After this young woman kills herself, the parents of the boys agree to pay a monetary cost to get out of jail time. However, Mija doesn’t see that as fitting, and looks to bring these boys to justice.
With similar thematic discussions as the Criterion release Secret Sunshine, the true star of this film is Chang-dong and both his work within the narrative, as well as on screen. Lee is a director with a keen eye set on the idea of grief and what it does to people, and his amazing sense of naturalism plays perfectly side by side with this narrative. Lee allows his performers and his narrative to truly breath, allowing for moments of silence and in many ways reflection by the viewer and those on screen, making this film very much a bit of cinematic, and excuse the use of a film’s title in a review, but poetry.
Featuring stunning cinematography from Hyun Seok Kim, the film’s visual palette allots the viewer so much inherent emotion, that given the empathy that one feel’s for the lead and the narrative as a whole, you will find yourself enthralled in every second of this film. Lee doesn’t allow for the viewer to ever feel too comfortable within the film, as the ambience that sets in is often shaken by these rash and shocking bit of action, culminating in a great story that one can’t ever feel truly comfortable and at ease. From the film’s opening frames, you’ll find that this film never truly goes where one expects it to, and for that, one must be truly thankful, as it makes for a brilliant bit of cinema from one of today’s truest poets.
Iconic Korean thespian Jeon-hie Yun, coming out of retirement for this project, gives what can only be described as a revelatory performance for those unfamiliar with her work, and one that, for fans, confirms her status as one of Korea’s greatest actresses. It’s such a deeply moving and powerful performance, while being also unpredictable, and without any pretentions of being something too melodramatic. Nothing the character does seems out of place, even during these seemingly out of place outbursts, making for a wholly enthralling performance, and one that is set to be one of the best performances you’ll see all year.
The film isn’t without flaw however. Clocking in at just around 140 minutes, the film does feel a bit overlong, as the pacing is quite slow and melodic. I found this to be engaging throughout the feature, but for fans of stories with a bit brawnier of pacing, this may not be the greatest of routes to go with. Also, I found the performance of the main teen lead to be quite one note and a bit odd given the film’s overall narrative and style. It’s not an awful turn, I just found it to be a bit odd. That said, with relation to Yun’s performance, I think it may in many ways aid in the believability and the reward the viewer will feel with the film’s conclusion.
Overall, Poetry is simply one of the best film’s of 2011. It’s a moving portrayal of a woman dealing with life in general, and through a new outlet giving her a new voice in life. Beautiful, engaging, and more than rewarding, Poetry is a must own for every cinephile. The release is top notch as well. Kino’s Blu-ray looks and sounds top notch, and along with an interview with actor Ahn Nae-sang (who plays the father of a boy named Kibum) and trailers, there is a really great making-of documentary. It’s a great release, for one of 2011’s great films.