Poetry‘s juxtaposition between the achingly beautiful and the unspeakable is put nakedly on display in it’s opening scene, where a group of children playing on the idyllic shores of a beautiful river spot a schoolgirl’s floating body being swept down it’s currents. We soon meet Mija (Jeong-hie Yun,) the film’s protagonist, although we are initially unsure what ties this elderly lady to the dead girl, or why.
Mija is a cheerful, down-to-earth older woman who seems to be aging with grace, treating the people around her with kindness and a singularly sweet temperament that is hard for many people diving headfirst into their twilight years to maintain.
Mija has a grandson, Jongwook (Da-Wit Lee,) an ungrateful pizza-faced pipsqueak who’s mama can’t be arsed to look after him full-time, and I am not exaggerating when I say I have not felt such dislike for a fictional character in a long time. And don’t say he’s just a kid, because I just may puke. Jongwook is sloppy, piggish, ungrateful, and rude, but that is soon revealed to be the least of his vices when it comes to light he and his friends have been gang-raping the drowned girl, his unpopular classmate, prior to her death. Turns out the poor teenager leapt to her death, presumably to escape Jongwook and his friend’s abuse.
There’s other horrible shit going on here, as if the rape and the suicide weren’t difficult enough. While coping with the realization that her grandson is a monster without an ounce of pity or remorse for what he did, Mija also copes with her disconcerting loss of words and phrases, that slip from her mind like sand through a sieve. Turns out she has Alzheimer’s, and she also loses her job caring for an old stroke-afflicted man (Hira Kim) when he tricks her into giving him Viagra and makes a pass at her, looking piteously for one last bang on his way to the cemetery.
In the wake of tragedy, Mija loses much of her patience and warmth, but she tries to keep the walls from totally closing in on her by taking a poetry-writing class. But how does one find beauty in a world filled with so much pain and ugliness? Mija suffers writer’s block and on top of that, she has to come up with a lot of money quick to help pay the dead girl’s mother not to take her case to the police. Wondering why Mija makes the effort to protect her cretin grandson? I did too, but with her daughter out of the picture, Jongwook is practically her only family, and in her own strange way, she loves him, or at least feels like she ought to make the effort to save him from a regrettable fate.
Poetry is above all else a character study, although the premise of a struggling grandmother attempting to cope with the unfathomable resonates too. Jonh-Hie Yun is incredible in the main role. It’s a remarkably understated and subtle performance that will make your heart ache with grief as Mija suffers through other agonizing day in a life no one should have to live. Mija dresses smartly and tries to have an upbeat, sunny attitude, but with no support system she begins to crumble.
She smiles for no reason, rather than face the alternative, and laughs needlessly, and sometimes she comes off as a bit vacuous, a silly old woman dealing with things way beyond her capabilities. But she’s not weak. After all, it takes strength to get through every day in your own personal hell and trying your best to appreciate the beauty life has to offer. So event though she seems daffy, Mija understands and observes way more than she lets on.
In the scene where she finds out her son had been sexually assaulting a girl who later committed suicide, there’s no big emotional breakdown where she cries out and sinks to the floor in a sobbing heap. But you can tell by the deadened look on her face she feels it fully, in her heart, and in her gut. The boys’ fathers think she’s a silly old bird, but you can see she is feeling the gravity of the situation more than any of the men are. It honestly shocked me how caviler the fathers were about their sons raping their classmate. Haven’t these guys taught their sons better about how to treat women? But poor Mija is the one who is thought to be a little behind, a little slow perhaps. A confused old lady. There are definitely traces of sexual politics and class differences, as Mija sticks out like a sore thumb among the men for her femininity and her inability to pay her share of the money.
Poetry is beautifully filmed, and that carefully observed attention to Korea’s natural beauty- even the more Urban, gentrified areas- belies the story’s tragic elements. It’s not a Hollywood movie- it’s not glossy or routine, preferring instead to delve into an exhausted older lady’s reasons for doing things, which are not always kind or easy. Mija is capable of cruelty, and she’s the guardian of a truly dreadful grandson, but we root for her all the way. How does one deal with awful circumstances. If you’re Mija, you keep your cool, smile, and try to find beauty- however hard it is to recognize- in a world that can sometimes offer little but cruelty and nastiness.