Connecting to the Essence of Things: The Screenwriting Brilliance of Poetry

Open to the World: The screenplay for "Poetry" features is an exceptional work of observational detail and narrative rhythm

Poetry, the latest film from Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-dong, won the prize for Best Screenplay at Cannes. It is structured like a detective story, except there’s no Hollywood-style mystery to the film’s meandering central investigation. Unlike a traditional detective, Yang Mija (played by Yoon Jeong-hee) isn’t looking for clues or evidence. As an elderly woman newly diagnosed with dementia, she’s looking for something more elusive, perhaps even metaphysical. In sifting through the consequences of the discovery of a young girl’s body in a nearby river, what Mija finds is a key to understanding the mystery not just of the girl’s death, but of her own life.

poetry movie korea script 5A key quality to the film’s storytelling brilliance is explained during a class Mija attends to learn how to write poetry. Her teacher says that the key to writing good poetry is observation: “It’s important to see everything surrounding us well.” This conceit eventually guides not only the way Mija thinks about poetry, but eventually how she sees the world around her. It becomes a particularly useful tool for this aging woman, whom the world seems to have stopped regarding as worth its attention. In an early scene, Mija initially tries to ask a neighbor what kind of food she’s drying, but the neighbor doesn’t care to respond. It’s a seemingly throwaway moment, but that display of casual indifference is worth a page of expository dialogue in establishing Mija’s place in the world, a corner of obscurity from which she will gradually, almost miraculously emerge.


Poetry’s screenplay ingeniously lays out a pattern for Mija’s transformation that is virtually invisible from scene to scene; only when you look at the film’s structure from a distance does a circular pattern materialize. There are daily ritual scenes of Mija tending to her grandson Wook, as well as Mr. Kang (Kim Hira), a stroke victim who pays her for her care. For every one of these “Mija as caretaker” scenes, there are two or three scenes of Mija searching for meaning around her neighborhood, in the attempt to find inspiration for her new hobby of writing poetry. Mija seems to rotate through these scenes, and the girl’s death provides the axis that moves her through her daily routines into a more elevated awareness of both the horrors and beauties of her life.

poetry korean movie script 1To get a full appreciation of the gradual but dramatic shift in Mija’s awareness of the world, look at two scenes involving her and Mr. Kang. In the first scene, the feeble Mr. Kang tries to seduce Mija, an advance she easily rejects. She stymies Kang’s insistent pleas: “I just wanna do it once[…]I wanna be a man. It’s my wish,” not realizing that he’s talking from a place of mortal desperation, if not male selfishness. But the next time we see them together, she unexpectedly acquiesces to his request; she even takes the initiative, feeding him a sex pill. What provoked the change?

The clues are placed in the scenes between these two encounters, but they are hidden in plain sight, like Mija herself. The initial failed seduction is followed by a scene where Mija is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Just by being made to listen to her doctor’s clinical report of her impending demise, Mija is made to see Kang’s request in a new light. She writes in her notebook a stray line from the Bible: “Time passes and flowers fade.”

poetry korean movie script 2Another key in-between event happens in her poetry class, where she and other students are asked to describe their happiest memory. Mija chooses a moment as a young child being called by her older sister. “Although I was little,” she reflects, “I knew my sister loved me as she told me to come to her. I felt so good. And so happy.” It’s telling that her happiest memory is one of being wanted and loved, when the world presently pays her little mind (other than Kang’s purely sexual interest in her).

But the next scene offers the most provocative interpretation of Mija’s decision to have sex with Kang, which follows immediately after. Mija travels to the site of the young girl’s death – was her visit motivated by the reminiscence of her sister? Wordlessly, she contemplates the river for what seems like an eternity, remaining there even during a sudden rain shower. It’s clearly a significant event for her, but we have no clear idea how or why, until a few minutes later when we witness her mounting the old man in the bathtub, leaving us stunned and grasping for causality.

Is there a connection between her visit to the death site and the sex act that followed? Could it be that, in imagining the trauma suffered by that girl, a victim of gang rape leading to her suicide, she wanted to connect with her psychically by experiencing her own act of debasement?

It’s an incredibly complex sequence. One can read her actions as showing empathy for the man by willingly offering him physical solace in their shared state of decrepitude. But it can also be read as an  attempt to empathize with a girl’s victimization. Further complicating matters is her own agency over this act – how can one willingly be violated? Is it sexual healing, or sexual trauma? Or both at once? This one moment contains seemingly contradictory meanings, that in turn reflect the contradictory nature of humankind, it’s endless equations of giving and taking, cruelty and kindness. It’s the kind of density of interpretation that one finds in great poems.

That advanced, multifaceted sense of what things mean is the cornerstone of the art in Poetry. It is mostly channeled through Mija in her slow journey of awakening, which in itself stands-in for the intuitive approach to storytelling embodied by Lee’s script. By opening itself to the world it creates, Poetry espouses the powers of observational detail in its search for the essence of things.

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Simon Abrams is a NY-based film, tv and comics critic for various outlets, including the Village Voice, the Onion’s A.V. Club and Wide Screen. He collects his writing on film at Extended Cut.


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