Lee Chang-Dong is hardly the first filmmaker to send a protagonist on a journey of discovery that changes their perception of the world, but no one’s ever put a sixtysomething granny in the early stages of Alzheimer’s through an adult-education poetry class as a way of crafting a social statement about a self-absorbed patriarchy’s paucity of human insight.
We watch and learn – about South Korea certainly, but about ourselves too – though this never becomes a duty, since Lee’s is a filmmaker with a conscience, who deploys it in an astringent challenge to our assumptions rather than sentimental pandering.
Lee is esteemed at home and on the festival circuit (he’s a regular in competition at Cannes), but this is the first of his five features to secure UK theatrical distribution. It’s fair to say that the subject-matter, encompassing poetry, dementia, sexual abuse and suicide, is likely to be a hard sell, but the quality of the film is such that it simply demands an airing.
Here the elderly Mija reacts to news of her irreversible Alzheimer’s by signing up for a poetry class,so why even enter an arena that’s about shaping enhanced perceptions through the skilled command of language? In essence, that’s the puzzle which drives the story forward, as the viewer tries to make connections between poetry and the unfolding dilemma whereby the old lady is happens upon some blood money, and the other narrative string involving a rape.
Leading lady Yun Jung-Hee, a Korean screen legend who emerged from 16 years of retirement to provide the latest in a series of truly remarkable female performances in Lee’s filmography, proves uncannily adept at showing how Mija’s meek exterior hides a stern interior that can challenge the male dominated environment she comes upon.
The film is a companion to Bong Joon-Ho’s Mother (where the social observation stems from the matriarch’s determination to deny her slow-witted son’s guilt in a murder case), whereas that story took on the conventions of a crime thriller and procedural detective genre, here Lee is more of a naturalistic director who makes you think you have stumbled upon a real life conversation.
The results are powerful, and not just in the way we come to sense how Mija’s misadventures with the local poetry group that is frequently hijacked by men egotistically parading their would-be sensitivity – effectively dovetail with the rape storyline by highlighting the male sense of entitlement seemingly running through every layer of Korean society.
Lee proves himself to be an astute and delicate filmmaker who is able to make a film that is both beguiling and yet politically conscious of sexual politics in a very restrained nation. The film was lauded at Cannes in 2010 and fully deserves this wide release on DVD.
Poetry is released on DVD by Rabbit Publicity on Monday 28th November, who I thank for the check disc.