Sunday, 20 May 2018
A woman sits on a rock by a river looking up at a bridge for inspiration. She has gotten into the habit of carrying around with her a small notebook to write down passing observations and feelings she has about and towards the world: the reflection of sunlight from an apple, birds singing in the trees, and now this bridge. As she makes to put pen to paper, she pauses, searching for the right words. Before she can find them it starts to rain and her blank page is peppered with raindrops. She looks across the broken surface of the river, puts away her notebook, and sits for a while in the rain. The world cries.
Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry observes as this woman, Yang Mi-ja, a 66 year old in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, tries to find meaning in the world around her. She takes a short-course in poetry, two lessons a week for one month, and is tasked by her teacher to write one poem by the time the month is up. Meanwhile, her oafish grandson, who lives with her instead of his absent mother, has admitted to his teachers that he repeatedly raped a female classmate with his friends over the course of several months, ultimately leading to her suicide. Cornered by the other boys’ fathers, Mi-ja is forced to join them in offering the girl’s mother hush money, that she can’t afford, so that she won’t press charges. The school doesn’t want to tarnish its reputation with bad publicity, and the police don’t want to investigate unless the mother presses charges. And so, this unconscionable cover-up is allowed to unfold, acknowledged by all parties as the only logical course of action.
How does one look upon such an ugly world and write poetry? “Poetry is dying,” her teacher tells her, and it’s easy to see why. Lee, whose films are filled with trains, taxis and buses, portrays this community as one filled with moral passengers: people who will continue to profit as long as their behaviour remains unchecked. Mi-ja works as a maid for an elderly man recovering from a stroke, who surreptitiously takes viagra instead of his regular pills in an attempt to trick her into stimulating his penis while she bathes him. Later, Mi-ja is told that a brash policeman at a poetry recital was demoted and sent to their rural town from the city for reporting internal corruption.
This world has been poisoned by wilful silence in the name of profit, yet Mi-ja, though stupefied by the behaviour of those around her, is single-minded in her determination to find some semblance of beauty, whether that’s the taste of a fallen apricot on the ground of an orchard or justice for an unpunished act of devastating violence. When her finished poem is finally revealed, she is the only person in her class to have written one. “It’s too difficult,” a woman says when asked why she hasn’t done the one thing the teacher asked of her. The rest of the class smile bashfully like schoolchildren, relieved in the knowledge that while they’ve wasted their time, they are not alone in doing so and therefore cannot realistically be made to feel bad about their failure. It’s easier to stay quiet than to speak up, and Lee leaves us with a room of poets with nothing to say, listening as the teacher begins to read the absent Mi-ja’s exorcistic poem aloud. This ordeal is over. Is there a future for poetry?