We are only two-thirds of the way through with 2011, but if I was to make a top ten list at this point, there is no question that Poetry, would ride near the top spot, if not occupy it outright. I thought so highly of it that I singled it out in my special report on South Korean Cinema for Ebert Presents at the Movies. Part of what’s fascinating about the film is that it’s not easy to summarize. In very coarse terms, you could say that it’s about Mija, a elderly woman set on accomplishing two things before her mind slips irretreivably into dementia: to find justice for a girl found dead in a river, and to learn how to write a single poem. But the way the film plays out is far less straightforward, and all the more beguiling for it. Directed by Korean master Lee Chang-dong (his film Peppermint Candy was my favorite until Poetry came along) and with an exquisitely nuanced performance by actress Yoon Jeong-hee (considered the Meryl Streep of South Korea, and coaxed out of retirement for this role), Poetry is one for the ages.
It doesn’t look like I’m the only one with this opinion: the film sports a perfect 100% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a 90% on Metacritic. So it’s especially satisfying to announce that one of the front-runners for this year’s best film will be available on Fandor tomorrow, the same day it becomes available on DVD and Blu-Ray.
With such a high regard among critics, you’d think that Poetry would inspire some exceptional prose insights. I’m particularly fascinated to see how critics manage to articulate the elusive wonders of this film. I’ve read over forty reviews of Poetry, and here are excerpts from five that I think are the standouts. – Kevin B. Lee
Poetry begins, as many movies do, with a shot of a dead body. But it ends so very differently. What sets this beautiful character study apart from so many movies, is the reanimation of the young girl’s corpse — not literally, of course. It’s not accomplished through cheap flashbacks (the story is told chronologically) but it happens spiritually and, well, poetically. This movie’s magic is a spell cast through the genuine empathy of the writer/director and the inquisitive humanity of the protagonist, who can’t let the girl, a complete stranger, go. Mija wants to write poetry, to commemorate the beauty in life. She knows its fragility, at any moment it can slip away.
– Nathaniel Rogers, The Film Experience
Out of pain, Mija finds a way to see, really see the world, with its flowers, rustling trees, laughing people and cruelties, and in doing so turns reality into art, tragedy into the sublime. It’s an extraordinary transformation, one that emerges through seemingly unconnected narrative fragments, tenderly observed moments and a formal rigor that might go unnoticed. Yet everything pieces together in this heartbreaking film — motifs and actions in the opening are mirrored in the last scenes — including flowers, those that bewitch Mija outside the restaurant and those in a vase at the dead girl’s house. The river that flows in the opening shot streams through the last image too, less a circle than a continuum.
– Manohla Dargis, The New York Times
She is seen early on as a patient, learning that she may be experiencing the first effects of Alzheimer’s; characteristically for Lee, this is no impediment, and certainly not as a prop for melodrama. Lee’s storytelling is non-diagrammatic, never insistent: There is no simple cause and effect between the initially cautious diagnosis and her decision to sign up for a poetry class at a community centre in her smallish city on the banks of the Han River. That doesn’t mean, however, that the viewer is denied such a cause-and-effect reading if they choose one, and Lee isn’t a filmmaker to either encourage or discourage it. This is perhaps the most notable aspect of the evolution of Lee’s screenwriting—rewarded at Cannes with the screenplay prize—starting from the unmistakable determinism of Green Fish and the elegant but closed geometrics of Peppermint Candy. Like his camera, which allows viewers to make their own compositions and choices within the larger frame, his narrative approach trusts in granting characters their own lives, so much so that one gets the sense that they frequently surprise Lee himself with the choices they make.
– Robert Koehler, Cinema-scope
WATCH POETRY ON FANDOR
The mess of hurt Mija endures richly and unexpectedly speaks to both her role as a woman and caregiver in her society. First she refuses to jerk her wealthy sad-sack boss off, then submits to him in a moment of weakness that also happens to speak to her humanity. Mija, riding the crippled gentleman, sheds tears—but they are as much for her as they are for the girl who her son and his friends tormented. The sex, a rape of sorts, becomes epiphany: Blackmail may seem like Mija’s agenda, but by submitting to her boss she’s able to empathize with the dead girl and, as a result, learn that to love her grandson need not mean that she has to protect him from the punishment he deserves.
– Ed Gonzalez, Slant
Yun, a veteran actress here playing her first major role in 16 years, astonishes with her subtlety and felicity of expression, her character’s initially hidden and then gradually revealed will of iron. I hesitate to even write a sentence like that, lest I make “Poetry” sound like a triumph of the human spirit. The filmmaker, who favors hand-held compositions that lend a slight moral unsteadiness to everything in Mija’s universe, is too smart for easy triumphalism. “Poetry” is practically unclassifiable. On the one hand, the narrative does most of the work for you; it’s spare but more than enough to get you hooked. On the other, what makes it exceptional is everything going on in between the narrative lines.
– Michael Phillips, The Chicago Tribune
And there are many other fine reviews:
“It’s rare to see stories about people finding themselves through quiet contemplation and writing. Something dramatic, usually criminal, is generally added, if not to make the story sturdy, then at least to keep people awake. Of course, Poetry provides this, but downplays it: as a movie, it has more respect for poetry than for violence, more awareness of inhumanity than thinly-veiled celebration of it.” – Alex Peterson, Tiny Mix Tapes
“There is a scene here that is heart-rending. The fathers of the other boys meet with Mija and explain they’re getting up a fund to pay off the dead girl’s mother. Mija is made to feel she must raise the money as a duty to her son. She deals with this in her own way, which I will not specify, except by saying that she begins to really look. And the poetry class, with its promise of transcendence, takes a place in her soul that we sense, rather than see.” – Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times
“Mr. Lee’s movie is a master class in accumulated and tactful understatement, and deserves every award it has won. In a way, it is a horror film, with Mija standing alone against two or three separate circumstances which could crush her. In a lesser movie, even one of those situations would be enough to cause all sorts of overblown drama. Instead, Mija goes to poetry readings. She watches how the poets present themselves and their work and takes notes about different styles and word choice. The subtitles are done well enough that it doesn’t feel like anything is lost in translation. She is paying attention at last.” – Sarah Manvel, Critic’s Notebook
“As Mija’s troubles deepen, she becomes more in tune with the everyday beauty around her – note how often bad news in this film is delivered in the presence of gorgeous bouquets of flowers.” – Matt Singer, IFC
“The underlying power of Lee’s movies comes from his decisive rejection of blatant sentimentality. He avoids music cues and other overt stylistic decisions by letting the performances tell the story.” – Eric Kohn, IndieWire
“Cinematographer Kim Hyung-seok’s compositions pack in as much information as the screenplay, often framing the most important part of a shot in the background. Time and again, we watch Mija as she watches somebody else. The people she looks at generally overlook or ignore her, but she never misses a trick.” – Elise Naknikhian, The House Next Door
“Yung Jun-hee, who is in almost every scene, delivers an astonishing performance as Mija, awakening to all the good and destruction in the world just as it’s slipping away from her.” – Marisa Carroll, Pop Matters
“This flawlessly constructed, bitingly intelligent film really does find poetry in the everyday – but a poetry as savage as it is contemplative.” – Jonathan Romney, The Independent
“All I can tell you is that if you give “Poetry” 10 minutes of your attention, and then 10 more if you’re still on the fence, that you’ll be grateful to yourself the rest of your life.” – Andrew O’Hehir, Salon