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Poetry - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Directing: B+
Acting: B+
Writing: B+
Cinematography: B
Editing: B-

Maybe I'm just completely out of touch, given this film's otherwise universal acclaim, but I just wasn't feeling it though a lot of Poetry.

That doesn’t keep me from recognizing it as a genuinely good movie; I just can't accept it as a great movie. But in my defense, I know so little about Korean culture, there is a very distinct sense that much of this film gets lost in translation -- subtitles notwithstanding.

There's just a whole lot of stuff going on here that is difficult to understand from an American-sensibility point of view. A sixty-six year-old woman, Mija (Jeong-hie Yun, easily the most lovely thing about this film), is informed by the parents of her teenage grandson's friends that the six boys have confessed to multiple rapes of a school girl. The girl has committed suicide, and the discovery of the body in a local river serves as the film's opening scene. But how this discovery is handled, by all the parents involved, is the real shocker: instead of bothering to discipline the boys in any way, in an effort to "protect their future," they all set about to sharing the cost of buying off the parents of the dead girl.

One can only assume this kind of thing -- the easy dismissal of heinous crimes with the right amount of money -- is common among these people, given the total acceptance of the practice by all parties involved. The parents of the dead girl, admittedly not at all well-off, don't appear to be above accepting such a bribe. Not even Mija, clearly the sweetest woman around, takes issue with it in principle; the trouble is merely that she doesn't have the money.

In the meantime, while Mija is evidently raising a grandchild on her own with the child's mother inexplicably absent, Mija is diagnosed with very early-stage Alzheimer's. She forgets simple words for objects, and in one rather sad scene, after being sent to try and talk "hear to heart" with the dead girl's mother, appears to forget why she went there. Instead, she finds the woman in the field and has a strangely protracted conversation about fallen apricots.

All of this is filtered through Mija's emotions as she struggles to write the one poem required of the poetry class she takes on a spontaneous whim after seeing a flyer at a bus stop. Between the issues with her grandson, the increasing memory loss, and a precarious relationship with the lonely and debilitated old man she cares for as a part-time job, Mija clearly has a lot of pain and conflict from which to draw poetic expression. But she feels blocked.

Mija encounters a group of regulars at a weekly poetry reading and ends up sort of organically folded into it. There are many scenes that take place at these readings, and the film Poetry could have been much improved by having at least half the time dedicated to this cut out. Different people get up to the stage, after being introduced by an emcee; they read a poem they like that was written by someone else; then, inexplicably, they offer commentary, which more often than not has no discerning relationship to the poem they just read.

Writer-director Chang-dong Lee sure likes to take his time, and seems just as enamored with these scenes as he is with all the others. I can't say Poetry is ever exactly boring, but with a run time of 2 hours and 19 minutes, it barely stops short of it. But just when your mind is about to wander, along comes a scene of unself-conscious, quiet beauty, such as when Mija is discovered by herself in a room at a karaoke club. She's singing in Korean, of course, but it doesn't really matter what the words are; it's the depth of melancholy in her voice that matters.

And all of this is working up to the primary goal at hand, for both Mija and for the film itself: the ability to write a poem. Mija has peculiar hardships, and as emotionally conflicted as she clearly is, she's usually almost shockingly dignified in her response to them. In the end, as difficult as a lot of it is to grasp, the same could be said of Poetry.

Jeong-hie Yun searches for poetic inspiration in 'Poetry'.

Overall: B
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