In the Korean drama Poetry, a woman confronted with evil turns from bad to verse 

Writing about music, as the apocryphal quotation goes, is like dancing about architecture. The saying (attributed to about 30 different people, but most commonly to humorist Martin Mull) is intended to express the futility of trying to understand one artform with the means of another. Given that there have been a number of great books about music, however, we could just as easily invert the premise. Why shouldn't some enterprising performance troupe dance about architecture, and are we certain that they haven't? Who'd be so bold to dismiss the very idea of, say, a Merce Cunningham project engaging Frank Lloyd Wright, or Le Corbusier as interpreted by Pina Bausch?

So when South Korean director Lee Chang-dong (Oasis, Secret Sunshine) informs us right off the bat that his latest film will be a consideration of "poetry," we need to stop and think for a second. How will this inquiry be conducted? Will an inspiring pedagogue force young men to leap atop their desk, yawping, "O captain, my captain"? Will a lovelorn nerd find lessons from across time, courtesy of a dusty library volume come to life? Or will the film itself coax us to attend to the everyday world itself as poetry, through attention to light and shadow, the slow movement of things, the overlooked detail pregnant with possibility?

Actually, the answer is (d), none of the above, although that last one gets a lot of lip service. Lee's film is actually a complicated and not wholly successful attempt to reconcile generational dissonance in Korean cultural values, as registered by Poetry's good-hearted protagonist Mija (veteran actress Yun Jeong-hie). She is a 65-year-old grandmother, part-time maid and pensioner saddled with the unenviable task of raising her grandson Wook (Lee Da-wit) while his mother works in Pusan. The boy is an insolent, bullet-headed doughnut, running with a pack of equally useless friends. To add to Mija's difficulties, she has just been diagnosed with early-stage Alzheimer's. After seeing a flier on a bus shelter, Mija joins a poetry workshop at a community center, not even so much out of loneliness or boredom as curiosity. "My daughter always told me I had a poet's vein," she says.

Part of what makes Poetry somewhat convoluted, though, and less than satisfying as an overall narrative experience, has to do with the major secondary story which Lee introduces about 30 minutes in. (That it pertains to the very lovely opening images of the film only clue you in to the fact that there will be no visual "poetry" without a price.) There's an irksome artifice to this subplot, which involves a brutal crime; one can almost perceive Lee's calculated decision that an elderly woman's self-discovery would not be interesting enough on its own.

Nevertheless, Poetry does end up having rather firm, even deterministic things to say about its chosen subject. Mija, who insists throughout the film that she cannot write, is actually quite clearly Lee's repository not only for poetry itself but for humanistic values he sees on the wane. The generation after her cares only about money and status, and her grandson is virtually amoral. Lee may gild the lily somewhat by afflicting his poet with Alzheimer's. (Early on she forgets words like "wallet" and "electricity.") But Poetry does confirm that, in spite of all, it is Mija's vision of the world that will be passed down, because a poem, like an apple or a freshly sharpened pencil, is a thing. You fix something in words and give it to someone, and it's theirs.


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