The shot that introduces Mija (Yoon Jeong-hee), the flighty grandmother at the center of Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry, could be taken as further evidence, after the smart, moving Secret Sunshine and Peppermint Candy, that the Korean novelist-turned-filmmaker Lee is more writer than director. But, following Poetry's lovely, ominous opening pan up from a rushing river, it suggests a greater sense of thematic purpose underneath his brightly functional-looking visuals: when we first see Mija, she’s centered but by no means highlighted in a medium long shot, one of several sitting patients sitting in a doctor’s waiting room. A phone rings and she digs through her bag, picking out her silent cell just as a woman sitting near her answers her own. It’s really only when we follow her into her consultation that we understand this is a movie about her. How to tell the focused story of a diffuse world is a primary concern of Poetry, a film which does honor to the both the struggle to make art—that is, to make something meaningful and cohesive out of the mess of life—and to all the messiness at the margins of any story.
Mija, 66 (not 65, she quickly corrects herself), is seeing the doctor about a pain in her arm, for which he recommends exercise—so we see her gamely playing badminton with the teenage grandson she raises, until he lets the birdie fall to his feet to answer a text message, and leaves to join his friends—and for her increasing bouts of forgetfulness, for which he recommends further testing. It's pretty clear where things are going when Mija wanders off to look at the flowers outside the restaurant where she and the bullish fathers of her grandson's five closest friends are meeting to discuss what to do about the family of a local girl who's just killed, having for the past several months been regularly raped by the six boys.
The set-up suggests another recent NYFF title from a new Korean auteur, but where the matriarch of Bong Joon-ho's Mother dominated the narrative along with the investigation of her son's (alleged, in that case) crime, Mija is slipping—bullied for money by the status-panicked fathers of her grandson's friends, and stopping to look at the flowers, or to contemplate how pretty the fruit that has fallen to the ground in its own time. The elderly stroke victim she visits a couple times a week, to bathe and perform other nursing duties for, seems less an ever more immediate harbinger.
Quite impulsively, Mija starts showing up at a poetry class at a local community center; she begins taking notes on the lovely things she sees around us, but an overarching structure eludes her. She begins to attend (only as an audience member) the center's open-mic nights, where the emcee jokes familiarly with readers we've never seen before, and where a brutish local cop digresses from his reading to make dirty puns.
Poetry, the film, is structured almost like an open mic: supporting characters turn up and play there parts, without contributing to the construction of a singleminded narrative—and not even just during the poetry workshop, which is frequently given over to the contemplative monologues of characters with no part to play in the plot. Why does Lee give a couple of lines to the poetry instructor's abrasive, drunk, firebrand protégé? Well, Lee suggests, because that's what life is like. Phrases and visual elements, like an apple or dirty dishes, recur without rhyming—the texture is unresolved and the structure far from definitive. Maybe these are all reminders, hints at a grand design here, but we're no closer to figuring it out than Mija, with her creeping dementia, is to resolving her loneliness, family troubles, and inevitable death.
That the film does end with a medium-length poem, and a decisive act, would be disappointing if the preceding two-plus hours hadn't been so affecting. As for Poetry's poetry: we sometimes see the lines Mija jots in her notebook, single pages as full-screen inserts, but I much prefer another shot of a notebook page, dappled with sad droplets of water—as much a poem as anything else, really, and at least as definitive.