Wednesday, February 23, 2011


Cast: Yun Jung-hee, Lee David, Kim Hira
Director: Lee Chang-dong
Runtime: 140 min.
Language: Korean
Country: South Korea
Verdict: A case for kitsch. And you don’t get many of those.
Genre: Drama

        Here is a typical reaction to Poetry, a typical misty-eyed reaction drenched in kitsch, and it is ironic that it comes from Ms. Dargis who happens to be a great admirer of Milan Kundera. It is for these very reactions that one could so easily single out Mr. Chang-dong’s film for one of those routine dressing-downs somber movies so easily invite, but then it is just as easy to completely miss the underlying cynicism he brings in this film. It is astounding the significance Mr. Chang-dong’s film acquires by the mere existence of Mr. Bong Joon-Ho’s Madeo, a seemingly liberal response to a conservative stance. But skim the surface, and ask the ending moment to shine some light on the entire picture, and there is discovered a film not critical but distrustful and yet understanding of the selfish pleasures of an outright self-righteousness of the liberal act. A film that first juxtaposes the beauty of a sacrificial exercise, as against the supreme selfishness (the mother in Madeo dealing with the old man) that in many ways is an allusion to the more firebrand/revolutionary versions of patriotism we’ve read and learnt about. It is a mother’s love for her child, as it is a man’s love for what belongs to him. If one would want to draw historic parallels, Poetry is a Gandhian (not Gandhi’s) response to Madeo’s Guevara. As I always say, what Oscar Wilde once said of patriotism holds truer for self-righteousness.
        It is interesting to note the Wikipedia entry on the film, and the inception of this idea. Read it here, and note how the shots of peaceful nature cause him to remember a brutal real-world incident. Reader, I italicize the text because, for some reason, the “beauty of nature” is an otherworldly component far, far removed from the reality of our existence. Much like Uncle Boonmee’s village, and much like the entirety of cinema, nature is a fantasy, a drug, or an acupuncture needle to lose ourselves in and forget the harsh grim realities. This emotional state of losing one’s self is of course not far from the arrested development alluded to here, and to go to a medium with the intent of losing the self, otherwise called escapism, is something that is inherently trivializing and disrespectful of that medium. Be it movies, or be it nature.
        And neither is that state far from the primitivism we usually attach with bourgeoisie values. Yang Mija (Ms. Jung-hee) is a lonely 66-year old grandmother, her primary mode of income being the government welfare and a paralyzed old man in need of services. Her grandson Wook (Mr. David) lives with her, and is more useless than Sarah Goldfarb’s son, a seemingly impenetrable stone. We learn, quite early, that old Mija has been afflicted with Alzheimer’s, and that is a plot condition that brings as much to the table as it takes away. Despite her financial condition, and we see a lot of the disparity when she’s in the company of some wealthy folks, Mija dresses pretty, and often even acts pretty. She is another of those Sarah Goldfarbs you see, someone who might have been the talk of the boys groups in her school and her locality, someone who does find herself a bit different than the next woman, and someone a bit more of a romantic than that next woman. I don’t find that wrong, although movies traditionally favor such folks, or probably every other body when scratched by a film feels more special and romantically inclined than the next, and Mija desires to find that beauty and romance in poetry. That grandson is her reason to get up in the morning. That desire is her reason to still feel alive and be hopeful.
        In a telling sequence of the ironical predicament of the newly romantic, a teacher inspires his students to look closer at an apple, observe its beauty, for looking and seeing and watching and observing shall wake the dormant poet inside. As we learn in the end, it is only Mija who takes her teacher’s advice most seriously, watching and observing and taking notes most diligently – of trees, of flowers, of peaches. She most desperately intends to churn out poetry, often pays a visit to poetry get-togethers, and yet there’s around her a most devastating crime. Her son has been among a bunch of boys repeatedly molesting one of the girls in the school, who happens to be from one of those economically backward regions, and who happens to commit suicide on account of that.
        She is invited by the fathers of the other boys, to sit around the table Godfather-style and discuss how to go about squashing the matter. Mija is lost. It is a great sequence contrasting the emotional competence and pragmatism of the fathers, and the arrested development of Mija, who’s shocked, and who would much rather be lost in finding beauty in the roses and peaches and meadows and river than dealing with the “immorality” of this grown-up world. The fathers are neither doe-eyed idealists nor moustache-swiveling unscrupulous organisms, but merely pragmatists, as is the single mother of the deceased girl who happens to work alone in the fields. There’s another great scene where Mija meets the mother, and inspite of both sharing a similar financial condition, the contrast drawn between the romantic and the pragmatic is so sharp it cuts through the kitschy façade of the film.
        But then, who’s really being immoral here? And what is the façade? And what’s so kitschy about it? I had quite an involving exchange with my man Srikanth here, in response to his piece on Dhobi Ghat, and I find some support to my stance from Mr. Chang-dong. Here is Mija, an elderly woman, a mother to a mother, and yet in the film’s twist at the end (yes, Poetry is a thriller under the disguise of a drama) we discover her true emotional allegiance and the person she identifies with. I’m all for idealists, but then the idealism that results from not having understood enough is a cause of concern. Of course, Mija is not an idealist in any sense of the word, but merely a romantic, and it is quite funny the way she avoids this event in her life only for life to thrust it back on her face. She merely wants to be happy, lost in her newly acquired world of poetry and beauty, and not go and meet the mother of the deceased, or summon the courage to call the police. All she desires is the mess to sort it out for itself, and it is quite obvious that such a person would do the morally right act not out of principles but to stay away from any punches to the conscience. She visits the little girl’s mass and steals her framed picture, and that is enough said.
        And nor does the table-seating, to which this old woman is a reluctant participant, represent an oppressive morally-ambivalent society. It rather represents an understanding Darwinian world, where the tough survive, and has nothing to do with class hierarchy. Case in point, the paralyzed old man and his pleading boner, and the way it is dealt with. Mr. Chang-dong observes all of this, not with those kitschy eyes Ms. Dargis attributes to him, but with the sympathetic distrust exhibited by Mr. David Edelstein here. He doesn’t condescend on kitsch either, and instead seeks to discover the escapist value of it, and the self-satisfaction to be earned through it, and the life escaped through it. No way could it have been aesthetically different from the way it is. And when a film’s moral center is a cop who makes dirty jokes and is not so serious and uptight about his honesty, I think I’ve every reason to cherish.

Note: This review has also been posted at New Korean Cinema, here.


Anonymous said...

I felt Korean cinema tends to be less exaggerative.

It's without any frills, simple and to the point. No unnecessary drama.

Anonymous said...

How is this movie a thriller? I didn't really understand the end, can you please explain?

Anonymous said...

I think she jumps off the bridge in the end. Her ending interlinks with the school girl's.

Anonymous said...

The boy gets murdered by the South Korean Mafia (The Seoul Men)