I’m still vibrating from a fine South Korean film that I saw last week called Poetry (available through Netflix on-line streaming). In it, a 66-year-old grandmother who is beset by multiple problems finds a way, through a creative writing class, to address her challenges.To say that poetry helps her cope better with her life would be overstating it. But it does get her to open her eyes to her existence and helps her make some concrete decisions.
Mija (Jeong-hie Yun) is a part-time maid for an irascible stroke victim and caretaker for her sullen teenage grandson. She discovers that she is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and then, to top it all off, she learns that her grandson and five other boys have been systematically raping a classmate, finally driving her (after six months) to commit suicide. She and the other parents must come up with a substantial sum of money to keep the affair quiet.
During this time, however, Mija has also started taking a creative writing class at the local community center. Somehow she knows that poetry will provide her with a lifeline—she has to beg to be admitted into the class since it is full—and she gives the teacher her full attention. Presenting the class with an apple, he tells them that they must start to observe the small things in life closely, and she attempts to do so.
She is puzzled by his talk of “poetic inspiration,” however. Where does one go to find it, she asks. He can’t tell her but says that it is “close.”
There are several sequences of the students, as part of a class exercise, recalling their happiest memories. To this point, it appears that the teacher is asking them to focus on the lighter side of life. Little wonder that Mija experiences difficulty writing a poem. The happiest moment she can recall is when she was three or four and was loved.
The class stories, delivered documentary-style directly to the camera, begin showing her the way. Poetry isn’t just about joyful images. Even the happiest stories sometimes have a sad tinge. As one woman says about an illicit affair with a co-worker, breaking up the affair was one of her saddest moments but there was also beauty in that sadness.
Mija, unable to find beauty in the instructor’s apple, nevertheless finds it in windfall apricots:
The apricot throws itself to the ground.
It is crushed and trampled for its next life.
She comes across the fruit when she is on her way to meet with the victim’s mother and instinctively recognizes that both she and the girl are like those apricots. She marvels at the ability of a poetic image to capture her condition.
Because the film is so understated, it’s unclear how her growing poetic sense has changed her life. The police come for her grandson—perhaps she has tipped them off. Her daughter returns—it’s time that she faced up to her own responsibilities as mother. Mija writes a long poem for her creative writing class—the only student to do so—but does not show up. We’re not sure where she has gone.
The film’s conclusion reminded me a lot of the ending of Antonioni’s The Eclipse, which has a 20-minute montage in which the heroine vanishes from the film (so do all people). The Italian film leaves us only with images that conjure up a failed relationship.
In Poetry, people are not absent in the concluding images but Mija herself has disappeared. Her voice remains, however, and we also hear the voice of the dead girl. There are images of buses leaving, of fallen fruit, of the girl gazing into the water immediately before committing suicide. Then the girl looks directly at the camera—there is a sense that the poet is really seeing her and that the two are communing—after which the camera cuts to the darkening waters into which the girl will throw herself.
I wondered at first whether Mija had also gone to throw herself into the water, but I now realize that the director wouldn’t do something that melodramatic. With Alzheimer’s drawing closer, she is already entering her own darkness. Her absence from the closing images indicates that she has left self behind and has entered fully into the world of the poem. Poetic inspiration comes to the desperate and provides them some consolation–the gift of beauty–in recompense for their suffering.