Lee Chang-Dong is hardly the first filmmaker to send a
protagonist on a journey of discovery that changes
their perception of the world, but no one’s ever put a
sixtysomething granny in the early stages of
Alzheimer’s through an adult-education poetry class as
a way of crafting a social statement about a
self-absorbed patriarchy’s paucity of human insight.
We watch and learn – about South Korea certainly, but
about ourselves too – though this never becomes a
duty, since Lee’s is a filmmaker with a conscience,
who deploys it in an astringent challenge to our
assumptions rather than sentimental pandering.
Lee is esteemed at home and on the festival circuit
(he’s a regular in competition at Cannes), but this is
the first of his five features to secure UK theatrical
distribution. It’s fair to say that the
subject-matter, encompassing poetry, dementia, sexual
abuse and suicide, is likely to be a hard sell, but
the quality of the film is such that it simply demands
Here the elderly Mija reacts to news of her
irreversible Alzheimer’s by signing up for a poetry
class,so why even enter an arena that’s about
shaping enhanced perceptions through the skilled
command of language? In essence, that’s the puzzle
which drives the story forward, as the viewer tries to
make connections between poetry and the unfolding
dilemma whereby the old lady is happens upon some
blood money, and the other narrative string involving
Leading lady Yun Jung-Hee, a Korean screen legend who
emerged from 16 years of retirement to provide the
latest in a series of truly remarkable female
performances in Lee’s filmography, proves uncannily
adept at showing how Mija’s meek exterior hides a
stern interior that can challenge the male dominated
environment she comes upon.
The film is a companion to Bong Joon-Ho’s Mother
(where the social observation stems from the
matriarch’s determination to deny her slow-witted
son’s guilt in a murder case), whereas that story took
on the conventions of a crime thriller and procedural
detective genre, here Lee is more of a naturalistic
director who makes you think you have stumbled upon a
real life conversation.
The results are powerful, and not just in the way we
come to sense how Mija’s misadventures with the local
poetry group that is frequently hijacked by men
egotistically parading their would-be sensitivity –
effectively dovetail with the rape storyline by
highlighting the male sense of entitlement seemingly
running through every layer of Korean society.
Lee proves himself to be an astute and delicate
filmmaker who is able to make a film that is both
beguiling and yet politically conscious of sexual
politics in a very restrained nation. The film
was lauded at Cannes in 2010 and fully deserves this
wide release on DVD.
Poetry is released on DVD by Arrow on Monday 28th
November, who I thank for the check disc.