This weekend I saw the Korean film Poetry, written and directed by Lee Chang-dong. The movie follows Mija, an elderly woman just diagnosed with early stage Alzheimer’s. She lives with her louse of a grandson (as my friend labeled him) Wook, a lazy, affectless teenage boy who never thanks her for anything. Mija learns that Wook and his friends repeatedly gang-raped a younger classmate, a girl named Agnes whose body we have seen floating down a river in the movie’s opening sequence. The rapes drove Agnes to suicide, and she has recorded her shame and anguish in a journal. The fathers of the other boys join forces to erase their sons’ culpability. They demand Mija pay her share of hush money to the grieving mother. Mija does not have the money, and how she gets her share cements her increasing emotional attachment to the dead girl.
Anyway, as this disturbing plot unfolds, a lighter one develops alongside. Mija signs up to take a poetry class at a local community center. The class’ assignment is to write one poem by the end of the course. The instructor tells the class that in order to write a poem, they must see clearly, they must see things as they have never seen them before. Mija takes on the assignment with an earnestness and urgency unmatched by her classmates. She takes notes, studies trees, flowers, fruits and her kitchen sink. Through most of the film she is unable to write the poem. We root for her success as we’d root in another movie for a losing team to win a game.
At the end of the movie Mija takes a heartbreaking moral stance on Agnes’ behalf. Finally she is able to write her poem. We watch from behind as she scribbles at her desk, and that is the last we see of her.
At this point I grew anxious that we weren’t going to actually hear the poem. Maybe I was the only one who worried about it, but I felt real suspense as the movie drifted to a close.
At last we hear (or read—the movie is subtitled) Mija’s poem. Mija reads the poem as a voiceover but soon her voice is replaced by the dead girl’s. The poem is intended to be written by a beginning writer—it’s actually written by the director–and I read that he had qualms about it being reproduced outside the context of the film. He’s quite right. The words of the poem paired with a series of soothing and startling images create an overwhelming cinematic moment that you won’t get by merely reading the text. I was shaking by the film’s end.
Still, I’m posting it here. Mija touched me . . . I want to keep her around somehow. And her struggle to write something beautiful and truthful about her own life and Agnes’ life reminded me of Stephen Fry’s belief that “poetry is a primal impulse within us all.”
How is it over there?
How lonely is it?
Is it still glowing red at sunset?
Are the birds still singing on the way to the forest?
Can you receive the letter I dared not send?
Can I convey
the confession I dared not make?
Will time pass and roses fade?
Now it’s time to say goodbye
Like the wind that lingers and then goes,
just like shadows
To promises that never came,
to the love sealed till the end.
To the grass kissing my weary ankles
And to the tiny footsteps following me
It’s time to say goodbye
Now as darkness falls
Will a candle be lit again?
Here I pray
nobody shall cry…
and for you to know…
how deeply I loved you.
The long wait in the middle of a hot summer day
An old path resembling my father’s face
Even the lonesome wild flower shyly turning away
How deeply I loved
How my heart fluttered at hearing faint song
I bless you
Before crossing the black river
With my soul’s last breath
I am beginning to dream…
a bright sunny morning…
again I awake blinded by the light…
and meet you…
standing by me.