Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Lee Chang-dong|
|Produced by||Lee Joon-dong|
|Written by||Lee Chang-dong|
|Edited by||Kim Hyun|
Pine House Film
|Running time||139 minutes|
Poetry (Hangul: 시; hanja: 詩; RR: Si) is a 2010 South Korean drama film written and directed by Lee Chang-dong. It tells the story of a suburban woman in her 60s who begins to develop an interest in poetry while struggling with Alzheimer's disease and her irresponsible grandson. Yoon Jeong-hee stars in the leading role, which was her first role in a film since 1994. The film was selected for the main competition at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Best Screenplay Award. Other accolades include the Grand Bell Awards for Best Picture and Best Actress, the Blue Dragon Film Awards for Best Actress, and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for Best Actress.
The movie opens on a river scene with children playing on the bank. The body of a girl in a school uniform floats by.
Yang Mi-ja consults a doctor at a hospital who is concerned about her forgetfulness, referring her to a specialist. As she leaves the hospital she sees a woman crazy with grief because her 16 year old daughter has drowned.
Yang Mi-ja (Yoon Jeong-hee), a 66-year old grandmother living on government welfare, has a small job taking care of a well-to-do, but stingy, elderly man who has had a stroke. She takes care of her 16 year old grandson, Jong-wook (Lee David), whose divorced mother lives in Busan. The grandson dominates the home. She asks him about the girl from his school class who drowned, telling him she saw his mother at the hospital. She wants to know what her name was. Her grandson says he didn't know her well, and he watches TV.
She enters a poetry class at the local community center, with the assignment to write a poem in one month. At the suggestion of her teacher she begins writing notes about the things she sees, especially flowers.
Her grandson only interacts with his five male friends from school. A father of one of the friends schedules a meeting with her. She insists it can't interfere with her poetry class. The father owns a karaoke bar. After her poety class, Mi-ja waits for him while enthusiastically singing a passionate love song in a karaoke booth. He applauds. She is embarrassed. He takes Mi-ja to meet the fathers of her grandson's group of friends. She is told that the group of boys have repeatedly raped a girl, Agnes, over the past six months, in the science lab at their school, to which one of them has a key. Agnes jumped off a bridge into a river and drowned. Her diary was discovered. Only two teachers and the two principals know about the incident. The school is afraid of the scandal. In order to avert a full police investigation, the parents of the boys offer to pay a settlement to the widowed mother, a poor farmer. Mi-ja cannot afford her portion of the payment. They pressure her to tell her daughter, Jong-wook's mother, what is going on and to ask her for the money. Mi-ja does not. And she does not tell her daughter when she is diagnosed by the specialist with early stage Alzheimer's.
Mi-ja confronts her grandson after he goes to bed, but he just pulls the covers over his head.
Mi-ja begins attending a local weekly poetry reading and meets several people, including a policeman who reads beautiful poetry, but makes crude sexual jokes. When she expresses her disapproval she is told that he has a good heart, having exposed corruption in the police force in Seoul, and having been punished by being assigned to this country town.
Mi-ja visits the school and looks through the window at the science lab. Mi-ja decides to attend the funeral mass. There are very few mourners. She leaves early and impulsively takes the picture of Agnes from the church entrance. She places the photo at the kitchen table. When Joon-wook gets up for breakfast the next morning, he stares at the photo for a few seconds, then tells his grandmother to fix him some food, and watches TV.
The elderly man she takes care of wants Mi-ja to have sex with him at least once before he dies, he holds onto her hand with his good arm and won't let her go while they argue. She is repulsed and quits her job. Later she changes her mind and has sex with him, but in her faraway look we wonder if she is imagining what Agnes experienced.
Mi-ja has another meeting with the fathers. She is upset and leaves early. They ask her to visit the mother and help negotiate the settlement, perhaps cry a few tears, woman to woman. Mi-ja goes to visit the woman. There is no one home, but she sees a little memorial shrine with Agnes's photo at the entrance to the little house in the country. The neighbor directs her to a field. She finds the woman, the same woman who was crazy with grief at the hospital, but she is composed and working her field. Mi-ja raves over how beautiful the flowers and trees are. The woman compliments how pretty Mi-ja has dressed. Mi-ja thanks her and turns away before remembering why she came, as her Alzheimer's has increasingly made itself known. She cannot bring herself to turn back and tell the woman why she came. She goes to the bridge nearby where Agnes jumped, and her hat flies off into the water. She finds the place where Agnes's body was taken out of the river and sits in the rain writing poetry. A few days later the mother comes to a meeting with the fathers and the fathers thank Agnes for negotiating. Agnes is crestfallen and leaves.
Mi-ja asks the elderly man to give her enough money for the settlement. In front of his daughter she says, "Give me the money you owe me." He wonders if it is extortion. He gives her the money. Once the settlement has been paid to the poor mother, she phones her daughter to come home, and insists that Jong-wook shower and cut his nails. She turns in Jong-wook to the crude but honorable policeman she met at the poetry readings.
The film concludes with Mi-ja's poetry teacher discovering a bouquet of flowers on the class podium with her poem, "Agnes's Song," but Mi-ja herself is not present. Her daughter returns to an empty home, and calls Mi-ja's phone, but receives no answer. The teacher begins to read Mi-ja's poem to the class. Mi-ja speaks in voiceover, though the voice of Agnes herself takes over midway through, following Agnes from the science lab, where she was raped, to the bus, to the bridge where she is to jump. Agnes turns and half smiles at someone, presumably Mi-ja, leaving Mi-ja's fate on an ambiguous note. Does Mi-ja join Agnes?
- Yoon Jeong-hee as Yang Mi-ja
- Lee David as Jong-wook
- Kim Hee-ra as Mr. Kang
- Ahn Nae-sang as Ki-beom's father
- Kim Yong-taek as Kim Yong-tak
- Park Myeong-sin as Hee-jin's mother
- Min Bok-gi as Sun-chang's father
- Kim Hye-jung as Jo Mi-hye
- Kim Hye-jung as Sick Elderly
The idea for the film had its origin in a real-life case where a small town schoolgirl had been raped by a gang of teenage boys. When director Lee Chang-dong heard about the incident, it made an impact on him, although he hadn't been interested in basing a film on the actual events. Later, during a visit in Japan, Lee saw a television program in his hotel room. The program was edited entirely from relaxing shots of nature, "a peaceful river, birds flying, fishermen on the sea – with soft new-age music in the background," and a vision for a possible feature film started to form. "Suddenly, it reminded me of that horrible incident, and the word 'poetry' and the image of a 60-year old woman came up in my mind."
Lee wrote the lead character specifically for Yoon Jeong-hee, a major star of Korean cinema from the 1960s and 1970s. Yoon later expressed satisfaction with how the role differed from what she typically played in the past: "I've always had the desire to show people different aspects of my acting and (Lee) provided me with every opportunity to do just that." Prior to Poetry, the last film Yoon appeared in was Manmubang ("Two Flags") from 1994. Production was led by Pine House Film, founded in 2005 by the director, with co-production support from UniKorea Culture & Art Investment.
Filming started in August 25, 2009 and ended three months later in Gyeonggi Province and Gangwon Province. Lee was initially worried that Yoon's long experience might have bound her to an outdated acting style, but was very pleased with her attitude, saying, "She performed her scenes with a willingness to discuss and this is something that's difficult to find even in younger actors."
On May 13, 2010, N.E.W. released Poetry in 194 South Korean theaters with a gross revenue corresponding to around US$258,000 during the first weekend. As of August 1, 2010, Box Office Mojo reported a total revenue of US$1,301,057 in the film's domestic market. The film sold 220,693 tickets nationwide in South Korea.
As of September 18, 2012, the film has a 100% approval rating from critics with 59 reviews on film review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes, with a weighted average of 8.6 out of 10. At Metacritic, based on 19 critical reviews, the film had a score of 89 out of 100, categorizing it as having received "universal acclaim." "Given the abundant potential for missteps into sappiness with this sort of premise," Justin Chang wrote in Variety, "what's notable here is the lack of sentimentality in Lee's approach. At no point does Poetry devolve into a terminal-illness melodrama or a tale of intergenerational bonding." Chang continued by noting how Lee's background as a novelist sometimes shows through, and that "[t]here are longueurs here... that could be trimmed, though overall this absorbing film feels considerably shorter than its 139 minutes." It was included in CNN's list of top ten best movies of 2011, and Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Phillips named Poetry his favorite film of 2011.
Lee won the Best Screenplay Award at the Cannes Film Festival. At the Grand Bell Awards, Poetry won the prizes for Best Picture, Best Screenplay, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor. The film received the Korean Association of Film Critics Awards for Best Picture and Best Screenplay. The jury of the Blue Dragon Film Awards decided to exclude Poetry from the selection, since Lee had announced that he would boycott the ceremony. Still, they nominated Yoon for Best Actress as they thought the director's decision should not affect the cast. The award was eventually shared by Yoon and Soo Ae, for her performance in Midnight FM. At the 2010 Asia Pacific Screen Awards, Lee received the award for Best Achievement in Directing and Yoon for Best Performance by an Actress; the film was also nominated in the categories Best Feature Film and Best Screenplay. It was also nominated for the Grand Prix of the Belgian Syndicate of Cinema Critics.
In 2011, Poetry was nominated as Best Film at the 5th Asian Film Awards, where Lee won Best Director and Best Screenplay. It also received the Le Regard d'Or ("Golden Gaze") Grand Prix and FIPRESCI Award at the Fribourg International Film Festival. After France honored Yoon as an Officier dans l'ordre des Arts et Lettres ("Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters), she was named Best Actress at the Cinemanila International Film Festival. Yoon also won the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for Best Actress for her performance, marking the second time in as many years that a Korean actress won the award after Kim Hye-ja won for Mother in 2010.
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