As boys play along a river, a corpse floats nearby. Over this image, the title: “Poetry.” It takes a certain kind of pomposity to wield such a grandiose title, much less place it over death. It suggests to the viewer that what’s in store will confuse suffering with art, just as Alejandro González Iñárritu recently did with Biutiful. And while it sometimes does just that—particularly in its more cruel screenwriterly plot turns—Poetry winds up going in a direction that’s in no way pompous.
In any case, the reason for the title is literal: Its protagonist, grandmother, part-time caretaker and full-time naïf Yang Mija (Yoon Jeong-hee), has taken a poetry class. Although she’s not diagnosed with Alzheimer’s until later on in the film, she has been suddenly forgetting words. Concerned over her fading cognitive skills, this aggressively unassuming woman tries to hold back the tide by learning an art form she’s never attempted. Inspiration remains elusive, although it starts to slowly take form once tragedy strikes: Turns out her apathetic grandson has, with several other boys, spent the last six months raping the girl found dead in the opening scene.
Yang can’t fathom how the boy she looks after could commit such deeds, much less remain emotionless. Nor is this grunting lump going to come clean. Yang’s search for answers in an answerless world is an interesting change of pace for director Lee Chang-dong, whose films (Secret Sunshine, especially) calmly lay out a harrowing but too straight and tidy journey through trauma. Poetry is just as patient but more fractured in its narrative. Like its protagonist, it’s unsure what it’s even looking for. That’s a good thing. Yoon, who was coerced from retirement for the role, wears a look of cautious curiosity that atones for some of Lee’s nastier narrative developments, including Yang’s lecherous employer and the fathers of the boys who raped the dead girl, who are casually trying to pay off the grieving mother. At those times, Poetry feels blunt and reductive; when it’s simply about Yang’s search for meaning and a purpose, the title feels close to apt.