Monday, September 20, 2010

NYFF: "Poetry"

Nathaniel, reporting from the New York Film Festival

In the first shots of Poetry, the latest film from gifted director Lee Chang-dong (Secret Sunshine) an idyllic moment of little kids playing by a river is interrupted by a floating object in the water. The corpse of a middle school student is floating their way. This nonsensational but horrific reveal will soon intersect with the story of Mija (Jeong-hee Yoon), a sixty-six year old maid. She happens to be exiting the hospital from a worrisome test (her arm has been tingling), when she is startled by the chaos of the body's arrival and the grieving mother of the middle-schooler.

Mija is quick with smiles and laughter, but as the camera intimately follows her about her daily life it starts to look suspiciously empty and full of loneliness and drudgery. She cleans, she cooks, she care-takes, and she has conversations with just about everyone, though those are often one-sided. Her grandson, who went to school with the suicide victim, treats her like the help, spending all of his time with his friends. Her cheerfulness starts to feel like a saving grace. She's a good soul but she's basically fading away without close friends or family members or anyone taking notice of her. Impulsively she starts attending a poetry class, eager to experience more beauty and do something creative.

Lee Chang-dong, who coaxed such a wondrous performance out of his lead actress in Secret Sunshine, performs similar magic again. Jeong-hee Yoon, who came out of retirement after 16 years for this role, is a wonder as Mija, beautifully fleshing out this woman's high spirits, kindness, and fears. Yoon's nuanced performance manages to reflect all of this within Mija's ever present curiousity. Mija seems to instinctively understand that her endless curiousity will fill her life with both more beauty and more sadness.

Actress and Director, basking in well earned praise.

Watching the old woman deal with neighbors, grandson, doctors, employers, and fellow would-be poets, Poetry finds pockets of both humor and tragedy in its detailed observations of her character and the patriarchal town she lives in. Two things continually occupy her: the poetry class and the teen suicide. The poetry fills her days and the dead girl hovers on the periphery of her thoughts... sometimes taking over completely. In one fascinating scene that's exquisitely shot and performed, Mija impulsively steals a photo of the dead girl from her memorial service.

So Poetry begins, as many movies do, with a shot of a dead body. But it ends so very differently. What sets this beautiful character study apart from so many movies, is the reanimation of the young girl's corpse -- not literally, of course. It's not accomplished through cheap flashbacks (the story is told chronologically) but it happens spiritually and, well, poetically. This movie's magic is a spell cast through the genuine empathy of the writer/director and the inquisitive humanity of the protagonist, who can't let the girl, a complete stranger, go. Mija wants to write poetry, to commemorate the beauty in life. She knows its fragility, at any moment it can slip away. A-

Poetry won Best Screenplay at Cannes. Unfortunately it was not submitted by South Korea for the Oscars. Kino International will distribute the film in the States. Release date TBA.

20 comments:

James T said...

Thanks so much. Lovely review. I haven't seen anything from this diredtor or the actress but this seemed to me like somehign interesting even before you told us you loved it.

But hey, this seems like a film you'd find it difficult not to love (hint: food for actressexuals) ;)

Sam Brooks said...

I am a massive fan of Lee Chang-Dong's work, ever since your review of Secret Sunshine made me go search it out at our festival when it came here.

I saw this one when it came here for the festival as well and was blown away by it. It's such a subtle, heartbreaking little piece of filmmaking. I don't think I've ever hated a character as much as I hated the grandson in this film. I also appreciated how it never went exploitative with the subject matter, maybe a bit melodramatic or soap-opera at times, but it always felt real and authentic.

NATHANIEL R said...

sam -- so glad to hear it. a colleague actually stopped me outside the theater for a chat this morning and was like "you didn't like secret sunshine, right?" and i'm like Um.... because i think i gave it a B- at first (while thinking the lead actress was total A) but it really grew on me. and even though i did have some quibbles wiht it it totally had staying power. but of course i like B- films way more than anybody ever thinks i do.

hated that grandson too. yikes, what an ingrate and asshole.

james t -- yeah, there's that.

silviabroome said...

I'm glad you liked it. Have you seen Oasis? It also features one of the greatest female acting in history of Korean cinema and it won lots of actress awards (including Venice's Marcello Mastroianni award.) Lee is indeed good with his actresses.

Mike said...

Great review, Nathaniel. Now, like so many movies before it that I may never have heard of without filmexperience, I'll be sure to seek out Poetry. Thanks in advance.

Lev Lewis said...

Such an astonishing film. So quiet and delicately assembled, seems to grow in stature every day for me.

Dying to see "Secret Sunshine", but no DVD or anything. A critic from Variety who was at the "Poetry" screening I was at, said that there was a rumour of Criterion releasing it. Which would be amazing.

NicksFlickPicks said...

Skipping middle paragraphs because I'm hoping against hope this is part of Chicago Film Festival (lineup announced Wednesday), and I'm hoping to preserve surprise. But first and last paragraphs are so lovely! And I'm just so excited if this means you're going to be reviewing all or many or even some of your NYFF viewings. It's so delicious when you're in reviewing mode.

I do think you'd love Oasis; you should watch that, and I'll catch up with Secret Sunshine. Deal!

NATHANIEL R said...

deal.

NATHANIEL R said...

nick -- one of my favorite things about festivals is going in to movies COMPLETELY blind, having seen no trailers or anything so i get skipping paragraphs but i do try really hard not to offer up spoilers.

mike -- thank you. glad to hear people take up recommendations.

lev -- it is totally weird that secret sunshine, which so many critics were enthused by in one way or another, has been so difficult for people to see.

Canada Pharmacy said...

It is a movie that requires the efforts of the public to think and interpret the film for what it is. But when the film is intended to be valued, is a wonderful film for what it is worth. Go see it. It is a movie that may change your way of seeing things every day.

Andrew R. said...

Pretty much all the South Korean films I've seen are from Park Chan-Wook (Oldboy, JSA, Thirst, the Lady Vengeance films).

But I do want to see this. It looks calming.

cal roth said...

I've seen Oasis and Secret Sunshine, and both of them had astonishing female leading performances. Now with this reviews for Poetry I think this guy is the new Lars von Trier when it comes to actresses.

NicksFlickPicks said...

Oh, I'm sure you are totally spoiler-free. I literally don't even know the premise of the thing, so I'm aiming to go in as blank as possible. That's what happened when I saw Oasis, and the result was thrilling.

silviabroome said...

Lars von Trier comparison is a little harsh. Lee is known for being very gentle with his actresses.

For those who are interested in, Moon So-ri, one of the greatest of our time, basically made her career thanks to Lee. If you liked her in Oasis, check out A Good Lawyer's Wife (directed by The Housemaid director Im Sang-soo), Sa-kwa, and recent Cannes un certain regard winning film Hahaha. People says she's a rival to Jeon Do-yeon, but I think Moon is better than her.

cal roth said...

I didn't mean Lee is rude, but he as good as LvT in getting awesome performances from his actresses. You could change LvT for Mike Leigh or Pedro Almodóvar... (but LvT is still the champion, I think)

Helena said...

Thanks for this great piece, Nathaniel. I'm going to see this at the London FF. Oasis, btw, has a couple of staggering lead perfs, Moon So-ri gets singled out for obvious reasons but Sol Kyung-gu is also fantastic. Both are also in the earlier Peppermint Candy, which gets more and more devastating as it progresses. Am scouring ebay for Secret Sunshine. If Criterion released it I'd snap it up.

Marshall1 said...

I'm so happy that I'm going to see Poetry in the Vancouver Film Festival with a Korean friend! Secret Sunshine is a real gem and of course the actress deserves all the recognition she is getting. The scene where she was in the church and she was getting angrier and angrier was beyond words. Always gives me the shivers.

Since this is Vancouver and I'm broke, I don't get to see Black Swan or other awards magnet, but I'm seeing at least 2 or 3 other blind items (all Japanese..lol), so I hope it will be fun!

Jin said...

GREAT movie, wonderful review. I'm still mad that this was not selected for the oscars.

Marshall1 said...

I am really confused as to why Korea is not submitting this movie for foreign Oscars, but who cares?!
It's their loss. I know it's kinda late to comment on it, but finally saw it yesterday and I think it's one of those movies that stay with you, makes you think, interpret, analyze.

I do think most people are too harsh on the son. Yes, it is frightening to know that the kids in the movie do not care about consequences, but I think the fathers are worse than the sons. I actually think the son feels guilt, but he pushes back everything to the subconscious. So when Mija confronts him, he doesn't want to confront the horrific crime he did. He spends his time running away from stuff (watching tv, playing in the arcade). I think it's amazing the parallel between Mija not able to write poetry and her indecision about teaching her grandson a lesson. When she finally decides what to do, her poetry flows naturally.

Marshall1 said...

Also, I think the scenes where people talk about their most beautiful moments is priceless. I'm pretty sure they are extras, but they are so authentic, for a moment I actually think they are telling their own personal stories.