Of the hundred-plus films I’ve seen so far in 2011, only two stand out as profoundly good, verging on great. The remarkable Romanian film If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle, full of a unique, rough-hewn poetry, was the highlight of this year’s Santa Barbara International Film Festival. Now comes the disarmingly affecting Korean film Poetry, which lives up to its telling, integrated title in ways that linger long after the end credits.
Strong as writer/director Chang-dong Lee’s film is on paper, a description and plot synopsis may fend off potential viewers, with its elderly female protagonist (veteran Korean actress Jeong-hie Yun) slipping slowly into early Alzheimer’s and grappling with a painful, criminal situation with her grandson. In the course of extricating her young charge from a stigmatizing situation, she is forced to make moral compromises and runs up against a feminist compassion (over sexual misdeeds) which ends up intrinsic in the plot.
Our heroine, a positive-minded working-class woman embattled by forces of life and fate beyond her control, is told that she has “a poet’s vein” and takes a poetry class that becomes a refuge in the darkening quarters of her existence. A classmate reads the apt lines “to write poetry is to wake alone … to create a forest of an empty void.” But our protagonist both reveres the world of poetry and struggles with the tyranny of the blank page. At one key point, she sits in nature with her book, awaiting a kiss from the muse, but only raindrops fall on the page, like celestial tears.
Grim-seeming as the film’s premise may be, its sum effect is one of cathartic beauty and necessary sadness, and somehow without being morose or brooding. In effect, the film plays like an epic and melancholic poem, a slowly flowing experience with a sturdier underlying narrative structure than we might immediately recognize. By the staggeringly moving finale, the puzzle pieces of the story are brought together, and we also sense the lurking meaning and connections between the film’s various ideas and realities.
As in a good poem, there are powers of meter, rhythm, glowing imagery, and tensions and releases built into the artwork, ultimately touching us on levels of human empathy and admiration for the subtlety and ingenuity of the art before us.