The “clueless old lady” in Poetry, as she’s described by a dismissive man at one point, is, in a sense, leading a blithe existence. Mija (Yun Jung-hee) likes flowers, smiling beatifically when she encounters them. When checkout clerks or neighbors ignore her small talk, the slights don’t seem to register. She does recognize the rudeness of the grandson (Lee David) she is raising on her own, but she mostly sighs with pleasant resignation when he rudely demands food or slams his bedroom door.
Then two things happen: Mija decides to take a poetry class, and she learns something devastating about her grandson. What follows is an awakening, a revelation that within her lies a deep, untapped understanding of the world’s capacity for both beauty and suffering, ethereal transcendence and ugly horror. (This juxtaposition defines the movie’s opening sequence, in which an idyllic river scene takes a tragic turn.)
As with Secret Sunshine, Korean writer-director Lee Chang-dong sets the stage for a bravura female lead performance. Yun’s portrayal of Mija has a novelistic richness to it, acutely observed in its details (the way she carries her purse), yet expansive enough to encompass the character’s long psychological journey. Compare Mija’s face when she smiles at a flower early on to her dour expression of defeated despair when dealing with her grandson to the calm acceptance that settles into her eyes near the end. Yun gives us a lifetime in a few hours.
As a director, Lee’s patience makes room for this sort of performance. Scenes often begin in a space before the action arrives, allowing us to get a sense of the faces and rhythms of a cultural center’s office, for instance, before Mija enters the door to sign up for the poetry class. As such, the film’s own beauty sneaks up on you: in the slow plan across a brook or the soft glow of a grandmother and grandson playing badminton beneath a streetlight.
In her poetry class, Mija is told to seek and write about beauty, but such pollyannaish advice can’t be reconciled with her real-life experience, and so her writing falters. It isn’t until she recognizes the truth about the human condition—that joy and pain will always coexist—that poetry becomes possible. Asked to share their most beautiful memories, most of Mija’s classmates recall an instance of pure bliss; when she shares a treasured childhood memory, her smile mingles with tears. It’s an awkward moment for the class, but also the birth of an artist.