Into the Past
by Rob White
Lee Chang-dong’s glorious new film is a major step forward for an already accomplished Korean director. Whereas his previous films are dominated by harrowing psychic and linguistic breakdowns, Poetry involves emotional restraint and a profoundly moving emphasis on eloquence. And while trauma in the earlier films leads to isolated suffering, in Poetry there is solace in a strange, spectral companionship.
“I am in so much pain,” says the bereaved mother in Secret Sunshine (2007), and she is not the only one. In Green Fish (1997), an apprentice gangster messily commits a murder and afterwards calls his brother from a phone booth. He tries but fails to fight back tears, his voice trembling as he reminisces feverishly about a fishing trip. Later another character finds an old photo that upsets her so much she writhes around desperately in her seat. Peppermint Candy (1999) begins with suicide; a close-up shows the protagonist howling in front of an oncoming train before the reverse-chronological narrative relates scenes from the etiology of his torment. An accidental killing during the man’s military service is the final trauma to be dramatized—except that the film’s coda shows him quietly crying for no good reason. Perhaps what burdens him is not ordinary grief but some primal angst that predates any horrifying experience.
Time and again in Lee’s films the misery is such that it disrupts speech, reduces it to mere screaming, or makes any communication simply impossible. The man’s wife in Peppermint Candy starts to sob while saying grace at a family meal and is hardly able to get the words out: “May this family…continue to love…each other.” The disabled woman in Oasis (2002) is so unnerved in a police station by false accusations leveled at her lover that she loses any ability to protest vocally. All she can do to try to express herself is maneuver her wheelchair with all her strength into the furniture; but no one understands. Having briefly found religious consolation after the death of her son, the protagonist of Secret Sunshine relapses into wild agony when the child’s murderer himself professes a newfound Christian faith. She shrieks at the sight of an earthworm in her kitchen and later, dazed and weak from self-inflicted wounds, wails as she staggers along a dark street. (She gets help but nothing suggests that her grief will ever abate.)
Poetry opens with the body of another dead child, a schoolgirl called Agnes, drifting downstream. When her mother watches in shock as her daughter is unloaded from an ambulance, an elderly woman walks past. This is Mija—played in an absolutely transfixing performance by Yun Junghee—who will soon learn that her grandson, whom she is raising, was one of several boys who repeatedly raped Agnes in the months leading up to her suicide.
The fathers of the other boys gather at a restaurant to explain the situation to Mija and request she pay a share of the financial settlement which, if accepted by the mother, will allow the assaults to be kept secret. The silence with which Mija responds to this corrupt proposition is entirely different from the inarticulacy to be found in Lee’s other films— instead of trying but failing to communicate, she simply refuses to. She goes outside to study a flower, penciling in a notebook while she does. It is not that she is repudiating what she has heard—she will confront her grandson more than once with what he has done and plead with him to acknowledge the crimes—it is that, as will become clear in Poetry’s conclusion, she feels a duty of remembrance toward Agnes that is at odds with this coverup.
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