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Theme Tuesday - Lee Changdong - Poetry

For November 2018, I will be exploring and revisiting the works of one of South Korea’s greatest cinematic storytellers - Lee Changdong - which will culminate in an assessment of his latest film, Burning.


In Lee Changdong’s films so far, big emotions and dramatic, often public, displays are common. Not so in Poetry in which Yoon Jeong-hee plays Yang Mi-ja, a woman who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, who must deal with extremely difficult circumstances and events on top of just barely providing for herself and her grandson.

So far, Lee Changdong’s films have been usually quite reliant on their plots, but I think Poetry is the first film of his that I think the more dramatic events of the story are not strictly necessary. If the film had just been about her daily struggles and her slowly coming to terms with her illness while trying to write a poem for her poetry class then I would have still been all for this film, possibly even more for it. Much of this has to do with Yoon Jeong-hee’s performance, which is delicate yet wonderful. Her Mi-ja seems to be a very traditionally feminine character, with her attention to her appearance and her seeming deference to authority, especially male figures.

Yet there is also great strength to her. The fact that she can still function without having anyone to confide in about any of her struggles is already admirable if quite sad. She may be deferential, yet she seems to make decisions on her own terms rather than someone else’s. When she has to find a way to pay a large amount of money, she is pragmatic and unsentimental. She treats her problems as things that she needs to solve by herself rather than things to despair about, even if she is not directly at fault for them.

Perhaps most admirable about Mi-ja is her humility. Something that was obvious to me but not so much to her is that she has the soul of a poet in the most romantic sense. Despite all of the harshness of her everyday life, she has an overwhelming urge to create something beautiful. Of course, she doesn’t know this as she seeks advice from so many people about how to create poetry, and of course, they all give contradictory advice. Her poem at the end is quietly devastating as it plays over a montage of events that lead up to the tragic event that started this film (not her discovery of cancer, by the way). It is clear that such a thing of beauty would not have been possible it it hadn’t been for the trials she went through. Though Poetry is still very much in the tragic mold that Lee Changdong has refined over the years, it is strangely the most hopeful and uplifting because of Yoon Jeong-hee’s performance and the beauty of her character.

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