By HTP Editorial
Poetry, released in 2010, is a Korean film written and directed by Lee Chang-dong. It tells the story of Mija (played by Yun Jeong-hie), a woman in her sixties who has just been diagnosed with Alzheimers. She decides to enroll in a poetry class at a local community center, in the hopes of creating something beautiful, something meaningful, before she loses her command of language to the disease. The poetry teacher tasks each student with writing one poem, due on the last day of class.
Parallel to Mija’s story is that of a young local girl who has committed suicide in the wake of serial rape by a group of her high school classmates. Mija’s grandson is implicated in the assault. While he is dismissive of his crime, and the other boys’ parents are concerned only with protecting their families with hush money for the victim’s mother, Mija feels drawn to the girl, fascinated by her short life and haunted by her death.
In one extraordinary scene, the poetry teacher has each student relate a significant personal memory. Mija recounts a moment when she was a toddler, dressed in “beautiful clothes”, running with total abandon toward her sister’s loving embrace. She remembers absolute joy, the feeling of safety, the knowledge that she was “pretty.” Not “pretty” in the sense of superficial judgement, but “pretty” in the sense of a sure conviction that the world accepts her, is pleased with her, and she is pleased with the world. All is as it should be.
One would be hard pressed to find a scene in any other film which so perfectly captures the full significance and poignancy of this moment–a young girl at the start of her life, poised at the pinnacle of optimism and possibility.
Sadly, Mija’s reminiscence functions in the film as a kind of measure by which we both feel and understand the horrific and irreparable damage we do when we crush that joy, violate that feeling of safety, deny promise, deride trust in unconditional love. Those who–like her grandson–cannot grasp or will not see or do not care about the damage they do are, quite simply, irretrievably lost to us.
In the end, Mija’s poem is a willful act of reconciliation–with her past, with the young girl’s suicide, with innocence lost and beauty re-found. Poetry is a powerful piece of filmmaking that grabs you by the throat and the heart, and continues to resonate there.