“Poetry” Review

How to disappear completely

How many times have you seen an apple? One thousand? Ten thousand? According to Poetry director/writer Lee Chang-dong (Burning), you’ve never seen an apple—at least not as seriously as you’d think. How does the light hit the fruit? What, precisely, does it smell like? What of its heft, or the feel of its skin? This, Lee posits, is the essence of creating poetry, and in this, there is a strange beauty—the re-contextualization of perception and memory, both of which become central themes in his 2010 opus, which comes to the Center for Contemporary Arts this week with a beautifully remastered 4k version.

In Poetry, we follow Yang Mi-ja (Yun Jeong-hie), a 60-something grandmother and care worker grappling with what might be the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Mi-ja has noticed her arm feels funny and that she can’t remember words for everyday things. Thus, she enrolls in a poetry class at her local cultural center, perhaps in a bid to reclaim the language that eludes her. But when the body of a teen girl washes up in a nearby river and Mi-ja’s grandson (Lee Da-wit) and his friends are implicated in the events leading to the girl’s death, our heroine begins to perceive the world and her place within it in heartbreaking new ways.

Poetry feels like a must-see for those grappling with age, though it might perhaps hit harder for women. From the film’s opening moments, it’s clear Mi-ja gets steamrolled by just about any man she encounters, from doctors and her grandson to the man for whom she cares who tells her to smile more. What makes the whole thing worse is in how these men perceive her—or don’t; as if she’s an annoyance or not even worth addressing. Yun plays this brilliantly, from the way she clenches her fists to the startled look on her face when the leaders of her grandson’s school suggest financial remuneration for the dead girl’s family as a means to not destroy any young man’s future.

How much is too much? How often do we suffer in silence? How hard can it be to do the right thing? Lee addresses these questions, though in a grounded way that is both maddening yet realistic. Mi-ja is only human, after all, and therein lies the rub: When we grapple with self-perception or consider how we appear to others, we might not like what peers back; when we consider the brevity of existence or the moral implications therein, the best we might hope for is that we lessened the hurts we bestowed upon others—and ourselves.

Yun died last year at 78, and Poetry was her final movie. As swan songs go, you could hardly ask for anything more poignant. This is why people make films. This is how we better each other across borders and languages. Please see this movie.


+Poignant writing and a stunning performance from Yun

-Cavalcade of drop-in characters is not always enjoyable


Directed by Lee

With Yun and Lee

Center for Contemporary Arts, TV-PG, 139 min.

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