Lee Chang-dong’s films have always had a wondrous sense of subtlety to them, and I think that’s what really makes his style of movie making stand out. Often eschewing the nods toward genre made by his younger counterparts in the Korean New Wave such as Bong Joon-Ho or Park Chan-wook, Lee Chang-dong’s films never tend toward the excessive. Instead, they establish a slow-burning, almost plotless slice of life that really sinks viewers into the depths and heights of the human condition. While his 2018 feature, Burning, is often considered his masterpiece and one of the more well-known examples of this style, I’d argue that Lee Chang-dong achieved something just as mind blowing in his 2010 film, which won Best Screenplay at Cannes and is my stream of the week: Poetry.
The director’s background as a novelist is really apparent in this film, and I say that in the best way. Based around working-class grandmother Yang Mi-ja trying to reckon a shocking tragedy with her newfound love of poetry and the regret of not living life to the fullest, this narrative is as well-paced as it is subtle. Perhaps its delicacy is even tied to the pacing. Being somewhat reliant on images, many movies often hurry the plot and end up being ham fisted in a way that’s not only unsatisfying, but can completely take viewers out of the story. Poetry doesn’t have this problem. While the 2-hour 19-minute runtime might be daunting to some, I can’t stress enough that this film is paced with stunning accuracy. Nothing feels rushed, nothing feels out of place, and it results in viewers being guaranteed to feel something.
The cinematography is also very naturalistic, with practicals and natural light making up the vast majority of shots. The camera movement, like the writing, is surgically precise. The way Lee Chang-dong’s cinematographer, Kim Hyun-seok, uses it to unveil faces or harsh truths is simple yet profound, a reminder that the camera is an active agent in the filmmaking process, and what’s left out of the frame is just as important as what’s placed in it.
There’s a ton of emotions packed into this film, maybe too many for some, but ultimately, I think it’s among the most profound watches I’ve experienced. Yoon Jeong-hee gives one of the best performances ever caught on film as Mi-ja, the protagonist. Just her stare is enough to communicate so many things at once: horror, shock, unimaginable grief. Not to dismiss Lee Chang-dong or Kim Hyun-seok, but Yoon Jeong-hee is really the key to this film; the way she delivers each scene with a powerful simplicity is enough to break anyone’s heart.
This movie is about a lot of things, but I think its main focus is how, in our mad-dash to make sense of the world, we often fall out of touch with ourselves and each other. This is in and of itself a radical political statement, demanding that we resist the rush of capitalism and really experience all the life around us. Stop worrying about the future—jobs, bills, etc.—and be present in the here-and-now.
As we follow Mi-ja in through such a pivotal moment in her life, we are given reason to reflect on our own journey. Poetry is about how important it is to find the beauty amidst so much madness, which can undoubtedly be hard, particularly in times like these; but, to quote Mi-ja’s poetry instructor, “writing poetry is easy. It’s having the heart to write a poem that’s the hard part.”
Poetry is now streaming on TUBI, watch it for free while you can!