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Poetry -- Film Review

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CANNES -- Rhyming couplets, rather than religion, is the opium of an old lady beset by Alzheimer's and a family crisis in Lee Chan-dong's companion piece to "Secret Sunshine." While both films feature maternal figures whose lives are derailed by tragedies they cannot help, "Poetry's" tone and emotions are so painfully muted, its style so elliptical and Lee's exploration of the function of art in a morally vacuous society so ambivalent that it makes for extremely difficult and challenging viewing.

Not everyone will wax lyrical about this enigmatic and troubling film, which is also Chan-dong's most slow-moving one. But those with an eye for reading between the lines can find layers of meaning. Initial box office in Korea is less than satisfactory. Offshore business, fueled by Chan-dong's status, seems more optimistic, with sales to five territories so far.
 

Mija (Yun Junghee) lives in a nondescript Korean town with her middle-school student grandson, Wook (David Lee). She ekes out a meager living through social welfare and as a house-cleaner and caregiver for an old, paralyzed man. Yet, like the protagonist of "Secret Sunshine," she is something of an outsider in Laura Ashley-style floral clothes and bonnets, which give her airs above her station.

Soon after seeing a doctor to complain of a sore arm and forgetfulness, she enrolls in a poetry class at the local cultural center. She takes her assignment of composing a poem very seriously -- attending poetry readings and taking notes on the minutiae of life she observes.

While the teacher echoes Keats by defining poetry as the search for truth and beauty, the validity of his theory is questioned by the ugly truths that dawn on Mija. Her senile employer sexually harasses her. She learns that Wook is part of a gang of six teenagers who repeatedly raped their classmate Hee-jin (Kim Hera) until she committed suicide.

The boys' fathers treat the heinous crime only as a hurdle to their sons' careers. Wook lets up no remorse or even perceivable strain over the consequences of his deed. All are symptomatic of a casual depravity in the community.

In "Sunshine," Shin-ae's (Jeon Do-yeon) sufferings and self-delusions are on passionate display. In "Poetry," the bleaker the scenario, the more subdued and introspective Chan-dong's direction becomes. When Mija is taxed with making a painful concession, like coughing up the hefty hush-up money, pleading with Hee-jin's mother or listening to her diagnosis of Alzheimer's, she just regresses into childlike oblivion (she literally stops and smells the flowers). One never knows whether her memory lapse is an escape mechanism, or if she is just playing the fool (the end suggests she is more lucid that she lets on).

The film's stance on art's role is equally open-ended. Mija's struggle to find inspiration for her poem only leaves one wondering whether poetry is born out of suffering or a means to transcend it. By the end, she is only a disembodied voice. Her poem, instead of being her ultimate self-expression, is dedicated to Hee-jin, and segues into the girl's perspective.

Yun's performance is as elusive as Jeon's is intense. Having retired from the screen and lived abroad for 15 years, Yun's slightly theatrical mannerisms and uneasiness in front of the camera makes her well-equipped to play the eccentric old lady. At the same time, her former status as a superstar imbues her with a lofty elegance that renders her role more charismatic and harder to pin down.

Visual focus is on the mundane character of Mija's environs, captured in plain, impersonal medium shots with sudden revelations of nature's transformative presence. Music is eschewed in favor of a wide range of evocative sounds, like the rustle of leaves or the symphony of wind and rain when Mija is searching for poetic ideas, or the noise of TV or mobiles that form a stone wall between Wook and Mija.

Venue: Festival de Cannes -- In Competition
Sales: Finecut
Production companies: Unikorea presents in association with Diaphana Distribution, N.E.W., KTB Capital, KT Capital, a Pinehouse Film production
Cast: Yun Junghee, David Lee, Kim Hira
Director-screenwriter: Lee Chang-dong
Producer: Lee Joondong
Executive producers: Youm Taesoon, Choi Seongmin
Director of photography: Kim Hyunseok
Production designer: Shin Jeomhui
Costume designer: Lee Choongyeon
Editor: Kim Hyun
No rating, 139 minutes