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Chang-dong Lee's POETRY and the world of MEN

I saw POETRY last week and was moved by many elements, one of which being the simple fact that this long, contemplative feature is about — sit down now — an elderly female protagonist. Hollywood it ain’t. Sixty-six year old Mija (Jeong-hie Yun) has two recent challenges: memory loss and a sullen teenage grandson, whose escapades with his friends, we later discover, make the trouble one hundred fold for his grandma. In fact, in Lee’s accomplished second feature, the world of men – their desires and back-room dealings — are the root of most of Mija’s problems, and her quiet strategies toward solutions are a major force of subversion, even rebellion. But does she feel like a kick-ass protagonist with a big bad agenda? Hell, no.

Indeed, Mija’s humble, pension-financed life involves caring for her grandson Jongwook, a part-time job as a maid and home nurse for an elderly wealthy man, and now … poetry. She wants to learn to write a poem. In the first insight we have to the fact that she is not as passive as she seems, Mija ignores the fact that the poetry class at her local community center is full, and convincing administrators that one more student is not a big deal, joins late. Although she presents herself as a sort of cheerful chatty Cathy who is happy to let others control a situation, she slowly reveals herself to be quite powerful in her own right.

Jongwook has been involved in a crime, the repeated gang rape of a young girl, a horrific act that prompts the victim to commit suicide. The fathers of the five guilty boys gather with hopes of reaching a settlement with the girl’s family and keeping the crime from the police. Mija is completely out of her element amongst the fathers, who laugh and drink beer in the same breath as discussing the sexual crimes of their sons. Mija, on the other hand, solemnly visits the science lab where the rapes occurred, and on assignment by the fathers, visits the victim’s mother, where Mija does not fulfill her given mission to win the grieving woman over so she will abide by their terms. The world of men here is very, very cruel.

Winner of the screenwriting award at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, POETRY is so special because of the way in which this seemingly un-empowered woman, someone marginalized in her own culture, assumes power and control in her own way. One way is through attempting to write poetry and the ways of seeing it inspires that give Mija new life.  Another has to do with justice. But in the spirit of no spoilers … let’s hope it arrives soon to a screen near you.

Trailer here:

–AH