Q&A: Lee Chang-dong


"Poetry," Lee Chang-dong's fifth feature film, boldly chooses an ambivalent theme to depict an alluring allegory of pain and beauty. The work, which will compete in Cannes' official selection, continues an exploration of forgiveness that the director began in "Secret Sunshine," the story of a young woman whose son is murdered by his voice teacher. The heroine in "Poetry" is a sixty-something woman named Mija (played by Yun Jeong-hee) who rears a grandson and nurses an elderly neighbor to support herself. One day, she signs up for an amateur poetry class and, as she tries to write her first poem, learns her grandson was involved in the gang rape of a local schoolgirl. "There's no particular theme in this film," Lee says. But the word "poetry" emerging from the film's opening image of a dead body floating on tranquil river brings to mind the loss of innocence seen in such earlier Lee works as "Peppermint Candy" and "Green Fish." Lee spoke with The Hollywood Reporter's Korea correspondent Park Soo-mee about the meaning of poetry in film.

The Hollywood Reporter: What did Pierre Rissient say about "Poetry" when he saw the film?

Lee Chang-dong: He seems to have liked it, but he always does (laughs). I don't put much meaning into comments you hear from the festival team. Often they're really just encouraging remarks. Personally, I have more mixed emotions about competing in the official selection. It feels like taking an exam, and somehow it's so natural to people that Cannes selects my work. It's almost surprising to them if I don't get selected (laughs).

THR: The film's character of Mija often seems somewhat indistinct. It's unclear whether she is just dull or if Yun has not fully digested her role. For example, when she decides to take (elderly neighbor) Kang's offer and have sex in the shower room, you wonder whether she's doing it for money or she felt sympathetic to this crippled old man.

Lee: Mija's character is more obscure than someone like Sinae from "Secret Sunshine." Mija is more passive and unstable. It's hard to define her character in concrete terms. But before the incident between her and Kang, we see her wandering around the river where a young girl had died. We know the girl is a victim of gang rape by Mija's grandson and his friends. Then, almost immediately after, Mija makes an important decision to fulfill the wish of an old neighbor who wants to be a man for once before he dies. The audiences are left to make their own decisions about Mija's intention. Sympathy might have driven her, but she could've done it to ask for money later. That is Mija's secret, and also the film's secret.

THR: Why poetry? When you look at your past films, is there is a recurring theme?

Lee: Normally when I make a film, I try to give people something to think about. In this case, it was poetry, but it could well be about a film or something invisible that we put meaning into. A few years ago, I learned about the gang rape of a local schoolgirl by teenage boys in a small town. The incident struck me, and stayed in my head for a while without really knowing why. Perhaps it was because the story was related to so many issues like the problems of youth, the future of society and morals in our everyday lives. So I thought about different ways to make a film about the incident -- like a genre film tracing the root of the event. But I didn't want to do that. Then, one night in a hotel room while I was traveling in Japan, I was flipping through channels, and saw a program which was probably for sleepless travelers. It showed beautiful scenes of nature -- a peaceful river, birds flying, fishermen on the sea -- with soft new age music in the background. Then suddenly, it reminded me of that horrible incident, and the word "poetry" and the image of a 60-year old woman came up in my mind. That's how I met with the story.

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THR: In the film, one of the students in a class shares her experience of pain and says there's something beautiful about pain. I thought that line encapsulated the film. Do you agree with her?

Lee: I don't know if pain is beautiful, but I do wonder what beauty would mean without pain. One of my starting questions in the film was why we read poetry. I thought about that a lot, and I think we're seeking for beauty, because the reality isn't beautiful. That correlation intrigued me. My other question was, why don't we read poetry anymore when the reality hasn't gotten any better? I wanted to question whether we really don't need poetry or certain kinds of films in our lives anymore. I really wanted to ask people, 'Are we sure we don't need poetry anymore?' I'm reserving my answer for that one.

THR: The last five-minutes of the film were poetry in itself. (The film overlaps the voiceovers of the dead girl and Mija, and the camera moves through the landscape of the town where the girl grew up.) How do you want audiences to take the film's ending?

Lee: They raise the notion of beauty and how one should feel when she hears a poem. When a film visually illustrates beauty, it often raises the perspective of beauty. I think the film's ending attempts to evoke the audience (to see) something beyond the beauty they see on screen, like the girl's death. In the end, the audiences' perception of the landscape is connected to their experiences off the screen, and that perception will likely be a reflection of their mind. One thing clear is that I didn't consciously try to make the landscape sceneries beautiful. Also, you can see the last few sequences as the world where the young girl no longer exists. It is the feeling of absence.

THR: The film leaves room for viewer interpretation. Would you agree that this film is more personal than your others?

Lee: I wouldn't say it's more personal. It might leave more things up to the viewer. It's a film built on the process of emptying.

THR: What will be your next film?

Lee: I have some ideas, but I don't know yet. At this point I'm not even sure if I should continue making films, especially if this film leaves too much damage for the investors. There's no promise that my next film will do any better.