First published by Little White Lies
There is something about blank pages – or empty screens – that demands we fill them with a bit of ourselves. This is why writer’s block has proved such a common narrative vehicle in films (think Barton Fink, Adaptation. and Swimming Pool) that deal with the creative process itself, dramatising their own imaginative construction of something from nothing.
In Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry, sprightly sexagenarian Mija (Yun Jeong-hie) must face her own blank page. Having just joined a community poetry course in pursuit of a talent that was recognised – and then abandoned – when she was still a schoolgirl, Mija is instructed to write a poem by the end of the month.
Inspiration does not come easily: her struggles with self-expression are hampered by the early symptoms of dementia, while her efforts to find beauty in everyday life are seriously challenged by the discovery that her feckless teenage grandson Wook (Lee Da-wit) played an ugly (and unrepentant) role in the recent suicide of a 16-year-old girl.
Yet from all her feelings of sorrow and loss, guilt and regret, Mija will write her first – and quite possibly last – poem: a song of innocence and experience that will, as one of her fellow poets puts it, “create a forest of empty void.”
In Mija’s first poetry lesson, the teacher holds up a simple apple, telling his pupils, “If you really see something, you can feel something naturally.” Such naturalism also governs the poetics of Lee’s film, where heightened aestheticism, special effects and even a musical score are eschewed in favour of an unfussy focus on the ordinary, leaving us to locate our own feelings in all the blank mundanity of Mija’s life.
Korea’s best known actress, Yun Jeong-hie, returned from a 16-year retirement to play Mija, and her performance anchors the entire film. Yet, paradoxically, the film’s final sequence derives its emotional impact from her absence. “Where has she gone?” the teacher asks, when all that remains of Mija is poetry – and, as with all poetry, this is best appreciated by those prepared to read between the lines.
Anticipation: The name Lee Chang-dong guarantees uneasy quality.
Enjoyment: Builds slowly but surely to its affectingly restrained conclusion.
In Retrospect: From Alzheimer’s, rape and suicide, Lee has created real poetry.
There’s an interview with Lee Chang-dong on Poetry here.