Poetry (Shi) (2010) is a South Korean drama written and directed by Chang-dong Lee. The film stars Jeong-hie Yun, Nae-sang Ahn, Kira Kim, Da-wit Lee, and Yong-taek Kim, and is about Mija, a 66-year old woman in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, who discovers a heinous family crime.
The film begins poetically with the sounds of the wind and rushing water; young boys playing alongside the river bank. Then, just there in the distance, you try to make out what one of the young boys watches on the water. You struggle along with him, watching until the body of a young girl float close up. You wonder who is this young girl, and why is she floating silently, along the riverbank.
Mija (Jeong-hie) is a 66-year-old woman raising her grandson, Wook (Da-wit) in their small apartment in a crowded city. She is dainty, always smiling, and always dresses as if she is a woman of means–when she survives only on a government stipend, and the little money she gets from caring for an elderly gentleman who’s had a stroke (Kim Hira) during the week. When she complains to her doctor about the little tingles in her arm and that, oftentimes, she tends to forget words that describe the simple things she uses every day. She dismisses it as something that comes with age, but the doctor is more concerned that it could be an onset of Alzheimer’s.
More concerned about her arm, she tells her daughter on the phone that she needed to exercise more. Surrounding Mija, a mother is wandering, calling for her daughter and it is a distraction to Mija. She stood there watching this poor woman grieve–in silence. She does not tell her daughter or anyone that she is losing her memory. She decides that just like her arm, her brain may need a little exercising, so she enrolls in a poetry course. Mija’s daughter even told her that she has “a poet’s vein.”
Mija’s forgetfulness has a significant effect on how she handles the chaos surrounding her. She uses it to cushion the devastating news that her grandson and four other boys at his school had just been implicated in the systematic rape of a young girl in their class. One of the boys’ father contacted her one afternoon to discuss the ‘bribe of silence’ that will be used to keep the dead girl’s mother from ruining the future for their sons, neglecting the grief the mother must feel for the loss of her daughter. Mija is distracted by an assignment from her poetry class, and decamps to observe the red flowers outside the window. When one of the father’s come outside to see to her, she discusses how red the flowers are “like blood,” she says. She writes these words in her little notebook.
There is a lot of pain reflected in this film. Through tragedy, Mija uses it as a way to see the world around her–through flowers, trees, and fruit. At one point during the film, Mija asks her poetry instructor on how to find inspiration to write a poem. He tells her that she must beg for it, that she must seek it out. That poetry is in everything, and is everywhere–in life, and in death.
Director Lee compassionately weaves a beautiful tale out of tragedy. The events surrounding Mija unfold softly, to draw you in gently, delicately, and lay out before you in a powerful series of events that also help to engage and embrace the tragedy of Mija’s circumstances. This leaves an emotional outpouring on film; a woman who is emotionally complacent, then eventually, in emotional agony, begins to embrace the young girl’s death as her own. Jeong-hie Yun gives an outstanding performance. It isn’t until the very end that you will understand the magnitude of this film’s philosophical equivalent of beauty–in sadness.
Just as every storm may birth a rainbow, just as every fragrant rose will also have its thorns, and just as the dawn will give way to dusk.