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Movie Review

Poetry

Lee Chang-dong’s film nearly perfect

Yoon Jeong-hee plays Mija, a woman of genteel, self-conscious poise, in Lee Chang-dong’s “Poetry.’’ Yoon Jeong-hee plays Mija, a woman of genteel, self-conscious poise, in Lee Chang-dong’s “Poetry.’’ (Kino International)
By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / March 4, 2011

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In Lee Chang-dong’s “Poetry,’’ anything beautiful or pure plummets to its death or is dragged from its comfortable perch. A schoolgirl, apricots, a sunhat blown, like a petal, into a river: Things don’t fall apart in this nearly perfect movie, they simply fall down. Gravity becomes a cruel conflation of emotion, morality, and physics — a force more to be negotiated than defied. In a small South Korean town, a goodly grandmother in her mid-60s named Mija (Yoon Jeong-hee) does that negotiating with a resolve that astonishes even her. She conducts some alarming, increasingly desperate business that erodes the simple illusions she’s spent decades fashioning into a worldview.

Every week, she looks after an old man (Kim Hira) who’s had a stroke. Every day, she makes breakfast and dinner in the quaint little apartment she shares with her truculent teenage grandson, Wook (Lee David). But her life takes a turn for the unexpected when two events somewhat cosmically converge. A schoolgirl jumps to her death from a bridge, and Mija decides to take a poetry class at an adult-education center. What one event has to do with the other is the movie’s spiritual epiphany.

This is a movie whose power comes from the alignment both of Mija’s discovery with ours and of a tremendous writer and director with his star. Yoon is a Korean national treasure. She made scores of movies in the late 1960s and 1970s, then, in the mid-1990s, abruptly retired. This is her first film since, and she treats the assignment with complicated grace. Mija lives on a government stipend and takes care of Wook because her single daughter has moved to another town for work. So her genteel, self-conscious poise could be a woman putting on airs. In Korea, she’s a type. But her somewhat breathy, somewhat deferential manner of speaking and her preference for dresses in pastels and floral prints — for all that is ladylike — is also very Tennessee Williams.

So is the way that sense of decorum comes under siege. Lee, whose sneakily powerful previous movie, “Secret Sunshine,’’ has yet to open in Boston, doesn’t insist on the delusional or tarnished grandness of his heroines. They’re sincerely modest. Hence, the devastating surprise of those poetry classes. Mija enrolls on a whim but comes to expect from them the instant gratification of some medicines. She goes looking for poetry in the sorts of places a woman would who likes sunhats and flowers on her clothes — in fruit and trees and clouds.

But like a lot of drugs, the effects catch her unaware. Mija doesn’t notice the expansion of her idea of what else a poem — and by, extension, she — can be until the limits are gone. She then, of course, can taste the bitterness of some fruit, feel the thorn of a rose, and embrace the possibility that that sad, dead girl determines to live through her.

Bong Joon-ho’s “Mother,’’ from last year, turned a similar South Korean family crisis into a thriller and melodramatic comedy. Lee is a more philosophically solemn filmmaker, a melodramatist whose movies refuse too many emotional and pulp additives. Lee came to filmmaking late, having, among other things, served as Korea’s culture minister, and his films fit nicely within a vast, diversely populated landscape that includes the films of Yasujiro Ozu, Douglas Sirk, Steven Spielberg, America’s so-called women’s pictures, and both parts of Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill.’’ Lee proceeds with a piquant understanding of how male cruelty and condescension can demoralize. Like Ozu’s films, “Poetry ’’ is less overtly assuming, less final, and less flagrantly tragic than most melodramas.

In fact, Mija doesn’t fully grasp tragedy until it grasps her. In an opening scene, she walks by a woman wailing on the ground in a shopping center parking lot and stops to watch her while talking on her cellphone, first with the camera at Mija’s back then opposite her, a pair of spectators of incidental street theater. Two hours later an emotional tide comes in that makes Mija unhappily complicit in that thrown-down woman’s agony.

Sometimes you don’t fully appreciate what a movie’s doing to your heart until it’s been shattered. We’re like Mija in that sense. We don’t realize how moved we are by her tears. Then, suddenly, there we are, standing in a puddle of our own.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com or followed on Twitter: @wesley_morris.

POETRY Written and directed by: Lee Chang-dong

Starring: Yoon Jeong-hee, Lee David, and Kim Hira

At: Kendall Square, West Newton Cinema

Running time: 132 minutes

Unrated

In Korean, with English subtitles

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