Poetry is a sly one. The latest from director Chang-don Lee, it's the very definition of a slow-burner. So slow, you may wonder for the first half if it's going to be worth the heavy time investment. The thing about Poetry is that it's never bad, or even average. It's extremely capable throughout. The performances are universally impressive, especially from the remarkable Jeong-hie Yun as our protagonist Mija (and how fantastic is it to see elderly women getting such meaty roles?). The direction is competent and consistent, if unremarkable. But as likable as it is, for at least an hour of the running time it's more admirable than lovable. Visually it's nothing to write home about. The story seems to be hitting beats we've seen before. It's definitely nice to see a Korean film that isn't focused on gruesome, rip-roaring revenge receive a wide release, but one might query if it deserves the accolades it has received. Where, pray tell, is Poetry going?
This is also a film where a synopsis does no favours. Much heralded as the story of an elderly Korean lady taking up poetry classes, you'd be mistaken for thinking this would be an excuse for a fairly by the book coming-of-old-age story. Opening (after a sombre prologue showing a young suicide victim's body flowing down a river) with a forgetful Mija attending a doctor's appointment, there are early hints the character is succumbing to early Alzheimers. Hardly helping is her lazy, rude grandson Wook (Lee David), who she's taking care of in the absence of her daughter. Mija makes a meager living from Government support and working as a maid for a wealthy but disabled elderly man. To challenge the monotony and potential mental degradation, she signs up for the aforementioned poetry class.
Director Lee lures us into a false sense of security with the opening half. Despite one or two surprising plot developments (one in particular providing significant insight into the previously mysterious prologue), the narrative largely moves along an interesting but rather predictable path. Personally, I feared the plot wasn't going in a particularly insightful direction. As I mentioned before, the lack of audio-visual flair rarely elevates the film into the realm of greatness. It's slow-burning almost to a fault. Luckily, Lee is a devious bastard, and the somewhat ordinary opening hour or so reveals itself as a mischievous sleight-of-hand.
What ultimately propels Poetry towards brilliance is how utterly unpredictable it becomes. A synopsis disguises the many curious directions the plot takes. It would be inappropriate for me to spoil anything here. Suffice to say, many of the later scenes will break and warm your heart in equal measure. A subplot may reach what seems like a natural conclusion, but will return at a later point to make a point that truly resonates. Mija comes-of-age, that's for sure, but the way she reacts to the world and people around her makes for astonishing cinema. Whether it's her encounters with her lonely, crippled employer or the way she reacts to her grandson's increasing distance and impoliteness, Mija's actions surprise but always feel believable within the dynamic, fascinating narrative.
The poetry of the title certainly leads Mija on a journey of self-discovery as she grows as an individual and makes decisions that we didn't expect from the awkward but likable old lady we're introduced to in the opening scenes. She particularly reflects on the way people consume art. A particularly memorable group of scenes focus on a charismatic policeman who frequents the local poetry recitals. Initially a likable individual - winning the audience over with crude jokes after readings - Mija begins to question whether or not he's a true poetry lover at all and, indeed, what makes a poetry lover in the first place? Yet the brief backstory we receive for the policeman casts him in an entirely different light. Characters here are people with depth - flawed individuals with credible motivations.
More than merely reflecting on the nature of art (and film-making?), Lee goes further than that again. Poetry, like the best poems, is an artful observation of nature and society. Are people merely using the timid, eccentric Mija? Do people overestimate and abuse the power of money? Why are the elderly treated like second-class citizens? Are the difficult decisions the only truly important ones? Poetry is a critique of South Korean and Western society, reflecting on the minute, the profound and everything in between. And isn't that the role of great poetry?
After two and a quarter hours of distinctively straightforward structure and delivery, Poetry in its final moments settles on a surprisingly abstract conclusion. While it appears at first to resort to the old 'ambiguous ending' trick that has cheapened many a desperate attempt at last-minute profundity, Poetry is far cleverer than that. The ending isn't clearly spelled out with conventional 'resolution', but then the themes and ideas that have been presented by the film are not easily resolved. Instead, the film-makers decide on a beautiful, thoughtful conclusion that brings the film full circle, and it's the only resolution that could feel natural here. Few if any characters in cinema can claim to reach a level of transcendence, but Mija finally achieves something approaching true insight. Having teased a potentially simple 'endgame' - the creation of a single poem at the end of the six week class - the ending is instead a very complex matter indeed. For a film that started wholly unremarkably, the ending is the polar opposite.