Mija (Yun Jung-hee), a pretty 66-year-old who lives in some unnamed city in South Korea, wants to write a single poem. One may wonder why, since she has a lot on her plate already. She is raising her only grandson, Wook (Lee David) in a small apartment. She works as an assistant to a man who is handicapped. In at least two scenes, she gives him a bath as they talk. And she has started forgetting things, which she mentions during a visit to a doctor, who has her tested for Alzheimers. Learning that she has the disease is a heavy load, but she never tells anyone. Instead, she continues to care for her grandson, stays in touch by phone with her daughter (Wook’s mother), and signs up for a course at the local senior center on poetry. Those class sessions divide the film the way a real course divides one’s life, adding to it bit by bit. “Poetry,” by South Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-dong, mirrors life and makes clear how similar the lives of South Koreans are to those of Americans, despite the many differences between the two cultures.
This film is not explicitly religious, though there is a scene in a Catholic church during a funeral Mass, a scene that involves the central drama in the film. A teenage girl in a local school has jumped off a bridge. Her suicide, it turns out, took place after six schoolboys, one of whom is Wook, had raped her. Mija, who did not know the girl or her family, stops into the church only for a moment, but it is enough: she hears the music and the prayers of the liturgy, sees and feels the pain of those present. It overwhelms her. On rushing out, she snatches a photo of the dead girl.
The teacher of the poetry course urges his students to learn to see, to observe closely all that is around them for that, he says, is where poetry comes from. Mija, who is a deep listener and eager student, takes his words to heart. She asks him questions. Learning to see is also a religious task, of course, one of the first injunctions for anyone who wishes to practice contemplation. Seeing involves a certain concentration, a being with, an emptying of self. Mija also embodies the empathy and gratitude that can come from close observation.
She begins to pay close attention to the flowers, fruits, trees, water, people and events around her. And she goes out of her way to meet the dead girl’s mother, see where she lives and what work she does. Throughout the film, Mija carries a little notebook and stops to write in it even, at one point, in the pouring rain.
Mija is actively looking for inspiration. In the end she finds it. What begins with observation, becomes resolution, then bold action for justice and, finally, transformation. And what she learns profoundly affects those around her. A woman who, from the beginning, seems to have very little makes sacrifices and incurs deep losses. But she also makes gains. She finds perhaps more than even she sought, and she writes a poem.
Anyone looking for a thoughtful, provocative and inspiring film should see “Poetry” (English subtitles).