I am saddened to read of the death of Yun Jeong-hee, who gave the best film performance of the 21st century in my favorite film of the 21st century, Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry. Yun reportedly died in Paris with Alzheimer’s, the disease that afflicts her character in Poetry. Yun’s legacy, of course, goes back to the 60s, and she made some great films, but I can’t think of a character that has haunted my thoughts over the years as much as Mija. Here is my original review of the movie from 2012.
Poetry, directed by Lee Chang-dong
The great theme of Korean cinema, or, at least Korean cinema of the past decade-and-a-half, is male violence, which may sound too broad, but any Korean film of worth, even the sex comedies of Hong Sangsoo, wrestles with society’s acceptance of male volatility, both emotional and physical. Lee Chang-dong’s last two movies feature female protagonists addressing that violence in ways that don’t often sit right with audiences. It’s not exactly accommodation, though, and Poetry may be his fullest, most realized contemplation of this theme. Here the woman, Mija (Yun Jeong-hee), is older, and we learn right away that she is slowly succumbing to Alzheimer’s. A widow who lives with her truculent grandson in a small apartment, Mija still thinks of herself as an attractive woman, maintaining her outdated sense of fashion, uncomprehending of people’s general ambivalence toward her opinions and outlook. She enrolls in a poetry writing class at a community center, and seriously tries to carry out the instructor’s suggestions. Lee presents her as a typically dull middle class woman on the verge of total insignificance, but these appearances mask a decency that’s troubling in the way it’s challenged by social norms. As Mija slowly comes to realize, her junior high school age grandson, Wook (Lee Da-wit), who has been deposited in her care by a daughter pursuing a job in another city, is involved in what appears to be the gang rape of a schoolmate who subsequently commited suicide. The fathers of Wook’s confederates are trying to keep the matter quiet and the police out of it by paying off the mother of the dead girl. They enlist Mija, the only available guardian for Wook, in their scheme, and she is so shocked by encounters with these men, who approach the problem as if it were an unfortunate business transaction, that she can’t help but put herself in the dead girl’s position. The poem that Mija struggles to write for her assignment thus becomes her means of coming to grips with whatever it was the girl must have felt, and since Mija herself is slowly entering into darkness, the task is all the more meaningful as a summation of her own life. Though the importance of Lee’s own task is no less weighty, his means are subtler, and the beauty of his accomplishment is in the slow accumulation of plot points. Mija’s caretaking relationship with her bedridden employer reflects her realization that men are capable of anything. Her inability to stand up to the fathers and their patronizing attitude speaks to her life of demure acceptance. And yet she never compromises her love for a boy who hardly acknowledges her. Mija proves that love in an unexpected way, while paying tribute to the memory of his victim.