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Jefferson Root Written by Jefferson Root
May. 5, 2011 | 1:44 PM

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The summer movie season is nearly upon us.  It seems to start earlier each year: Universal didn’t even wait until May to unleash Fast Five, and Thor is already waiting in the wings.  These movies, depending on your tolerance for CGI and Vin Diesel, are action-packed, enjoyable escapist fare.  One thing they are not, however, is subtle.  Anyone seeking something other than trademarked franchises, comic book movies and increasingly high numbered sequels from American studios will likely have to wait until August at least. 

Fortunately for cinephiles, the rest of the movie world doesn’t take summers off, and this weekend, Angelenos will have a chance to take in Lee Chang-Dong’s Poetry, a film that gets under your skin in a way that few summer popcorn movies ever could.  A work of quiet intensity featuring a brave and stately central performance from Yun Jeong-hie, Poetry has a haunting power worthy of its name.

The film begins with an idyllic setting that quickly turns sour.  A boy plays in the fields along the banks of a calm, sparkling river.  As the camera moves along the water, it discovers the body of a teenage girl, floating face down.  Shifting the action to the waiting room of a doctor’s office, Chang-Dong introduces us to Mija, a sixty-something woman who has come to complain of muscle pain in her arm.  As she discusses her complaint with the doctor, she happens to divulge that she has been forgetting the occasional word.  It’s easy to see why the muscle pain is a greater concern, as Mija has also been tasked with taking care of her teenage grandson.  Further tests reveal a more serious diagnosis which forces Mija to reexamine her priorities.

Faced with an ever increasing distance between she and her grandson, Wook, and a life that consists of little more than a part time job as a caretaker for an elderly neighbor, Mija decides to enroll in a local poetry class.  When she learns that her grandson may have been involved in a heinous crime that led to the teenage girl’s suicide, Mija ‘s attempts to locate her poetic muse are compounded by her struggle to do what’s right.

Winner of the best original screenplay prize at Cannes in 2010, Chang-Dong sets up his story with economy and purpose.  The stakes are clearly established from the outset, yet we still have a hard time figuring out which way the story’s going to go.  Part of this comes from our expectation of a grandmother’s role.  As Wook’s primary caregiver, we expect Mija to be a caring nurturer, but Wook’s petulant attitude towards her and her own personal struggles imbue the film with an escalating tension.  Mija’s journey is further complicated by pressure to contribute to a fund to cover up Wook’s crime by paying off the victim’s mother. 

Faced with a potentially bleak future herself, Mija makes some shocking choices, and displays a surprising force of will. All of this is expertly conveyed by Yun Jeong-hie’s central performance.  A veteran of close to 200 Korean films, but absent from screens since 1994, Jeong-hie’s wide ranging work here never fails to captivate.

Clocking in at a robust 139 minutes, Poetry moves at a deliberate pace.  But the issues being explored here are weighty ones, and Chang-Dong’s expert direction and keen eye for the lush Korean landscape ensure that the film never drags.  The connection between Mija’s diagnosis and her inability to find the words for her poem feels a bit forced at first, but the film’s exploration of poetry culminates in a richly satisfying conclusion.

Mija’s quest for poetry leads her to unexpected places and unlikely allies, but in the end she’s able to follow her instructor’s mandate that poetry must come from the heart.  Chang-Dong doesn’t let his heroine off easily.  She skips her final class but leaves her finished poem for her instructor to share.  As her words are delivered over a lyrical montage of images, Mija’s work morphs into a microcosm of what the filmmakers accomplish with Poetry: a somber elegy for what she’s lost, and a clear-eyed meditation on the difficult road ahead.

Poetry opens Friday, May 6th at Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in West LA.  In Korean with English subtitles.

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