Wednesday, July 18, 2012

130. Korean filmmaker Chang-dong Lee’s “Shi” (Poetry) (2010): Learning to look at apples anew

Good Korean cinema often involves very little verbal talk. The visuals often do the talking, which is not common for movies made in most parts of the world.  Chang-dong Lee’s Poetry is one such example where body language is more eloquent than the spoken word—unusual indeed for a film ironically called Poetry, a literary form that survives on words.

Early in the film, the viewer gets the feel that the tale has much to do with dementia. As the film progresses, the film shifts to examining tenuous human relationships.  Later in the film, the subject shifts gears again to focus on lack of communication between sexes and generations.  Strangely the film suggests that clumsy attempts by dilettantes at poetry writing could serve as a fulcrum to launch proactive communication between two individuals who would otherwise have remained insulated in their own shells.

A  Korean teacher of poetry induces his motley group of adult students to write poetry by asking them to draw inspiration by looking at apples anew. One can look at any object, he says, like an apple endlessly until you awaken the poetic sensibilities in yourself. So what, an impatient viewer of cinema could comment.

The film Poetry begins and ends with shots of flowing waters of a river taken from a tall bridge. Just as different perspectives of an apple could lead to inspired poetry, so too do the flowing waters allow Chang-dong Lee to develop a sensitive tale on relationships over time, until you realize the director has nudged the viewer to appreciate social values, responsibilities and relationships that make life worth living, putting aside social evils and lack of communication between family members that pervades our modern lifestyles. Poetry deals with emotions; Chang-dong Lee’s Poetry deals with individuals who seem to be devoid of emotions and somewhere towards the end of the film, the viewer glimpses emotions, subtle and yet so evocative. Just as the visual of the flowing water from the bridge might appear the same, the message of the visual becomes all the more powerful, with the viewer having learnt of the events that the movie has unfolded.

Poetry, the film, is not just about poetry. It is a film about human relationships. Poetry is a quilt of relationships—grandmother and grandson, Korean men and Korean women, Korean schoolboy camaraderie, the strange absence of a mother and a father for a growing boy, the dying urge of a semi-paralyzed old man to pop Viagra pills to have sex, and the lack of remorse of young Korean schoolboys to accept the consequence of their evil actions.

Poetry, the film, is equally a delicate study of the differences in the attitude of the sexes in Korea, in Asia, and, in an extension, the world. It is an unusual and sensitive look at male dominated societies by a male director. A girl is gang raped (the event is thankfully never shown in the film) but the director Chang-dong Lee allows the viewer to perceive detailed emotions of many individuals in the aftermath. The perpetrators of the crime are not repentant.  The male parents of the perpetrators of the crime merely want wish away the incident with the help of their joint money power. It is only an elderly grandmother who attempts to reach out to comfort the oppressed family.  Here is an unusual tale of a woman mourning the death of one who is not of her own family but of another unknown family, while men equally affected by the same death only wish the event away and cry away from accepting responsibility. In many ways, this film is like a formidable chess game between men and women. The young boy who does not flinch when the mother places the photograph of a schoolmate he had raped and is now dead as a consequence of that action, is also a young boy being brought up by a single grandmother. He does not have a father or a grandfather. The absence of the mother and the unusual reactions of the grandmother could insinuate to the viewer that he himself was born following similar circumstances befalling his mother—this remains a mystery in the film.

There are many films that deal with suicide that are dark and sad. Here is a rare film where suicide ultimately leads to redemption of many and this is so effectively conveyed by the fallen apricot the grandmother picks up during her journey to meet up with the mother of a girl who had committed suicide only to realize the importance of the seed in the full cycle of life.

The performance of the grandmother played by Jong –hie Yun is remarkable. I learnt that this actress made this film after a long hiatus from her craft.  The awards the film has earned for her worldwide acknowledge the importance of subtlety in the business of thespians that cinema can capture more effectively than theatre, at least in most cases.

Finally, the film is a 2 hour 20 minute film but the real punch of the film comes in the last twenty minutes and the sock on your jaw is a delicate one that can fell you, thanks to its potent screenplay.  The film deals with a 60-year-old suffering from the onset of dementia but the film seems to suggest lead character is deliberately trying to forget a dark chapter of her life as well relating to her absent daughter, which the script so cleverly insinuates but never elaborates. The film presents an optimistic end for a film that began with a suicide—it allows for a woman suffering from dementia to take a proactive step to improve the life of others,while she still has her wits about her. What a wonderful and uplifting tale that does not easily appear as one!

The film is remarkable because the screenplay, written by the director himself, packs so much detail and ends with an astonishing open air badminton practice, which is so delicately crafted that no viewer is likely to forget it. Hardly a word is spoken in the long scene and, yet, it is so evocative. By a coincidence, this important sequence occurs at nightfall, while the opening and the end sequences of the movie suggests early morning.  That’s subtle poetry in itself. It is, therefore, not surprising that the award Poetry won at the Cannes Film Festival was for the Best Screenplay. Here is a movie where the spoken word is so sparingly used and yet the visuals and the few words used in the movie spin true poetry.

P.S. Other films relating to dementia discussed earlier on in this blog include Naomi Kawase's The Mourning Forest and Sarah Polley's Away from Her.