Joeng-hie Yun returns to acting after an absence of over 15 years in Chang-Dong Lee’s feature, Poetry. She plays Mija Yang, a 66 year old grandmother who has guardianship of her teenage grandson, (Da-Wit Lee), who neither appreciates, or pays attention to her. Mija lives off of government benefits and the money that she makes caring part time for a disabled man. When she visits the doctor’s about a minor ailment, she lets slip that she has begun to forget longer nouns. This leads to her being diagnosed with the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Meanwhile she learns that a schoolgirl has drowned herself and that her grandson and his group of friends may have driven her to it. While this is going on, she enrols in a poetry class, in an attempt to write a single poem before the full onset of the syndrome takes its toll and she loses her complete faculty of language.
The film is for the most part a quiet, fluid affair interlaced with the flowing recital of verse, inspiring instruction on how to grasp hold of poetic soulfulness, and Mija’s own short musings on the everyday beauty she sees around her. Yun (who appeared in 160 films from 1968 to 1973! 160!!!!) plays the still beautiful Mija with a graceful sadness, who is trying to rediscover and see the world in new ways in an attempt to unlock her potential as a writer. This is after a class in which her tutor remarks, “How many times have you seen an apple? A thousand? Ten thousand times? Up until now you’ve never seen an apple before. If you really see something, you can feel it.”
With such utterances, the film goes on, Mija’s quest to connect and find wonder with even the most ordinary of objects and happenings, forms a contrast with others who seem uncaring and oblivious to feelings in comparison. We are made to feel every bit as bewildered as she does as she sits with the fathers of the teenage group her grandson belongs in as they idly accept the terrible fate of the girl without sign of anger or remorse. It is this kind of detached, blasé attitude to life that Mija, and the film strive to escape from.
Lee’s film ends up as a graceful portrayal of making do with the hands that we are dealt and trying to picture the beauty in even the direst of circumstances. Though meaningful, the feature does, however, tend to plod along and much like the fateful river that features so heavily, goes at its own gradual pace. Nevertheless we are left with the simple reminder that poetry exists in and around us long before and even without the need for manifestation into written word.