The ache of loss and the yearning for self-expression run through the veins of South Korean master Lee Changdong's enlivening new film, Poetry. Earnestly paced, plaintively sketched and wrenchingly wrought, Lee's work tells the tale of Mija(Jeong-hie Kim), a hard working grandmother who lives in a mid-level apartment with her distanced teenaged grandson. She is self-sacrificing but is portrayed more as flesh and blood than as martyr. Clad in bright colors, high spirited, she works as a maid, bathing a geriatric man to make ends meet. When she begins taking a poetry class at the community center, her journey to find her creative voice is delineated exquisitely.
The picture begins with the corpse of a young girl drifting down the river, and the water motif recurs throughout. A horrible deed is uncovered, and the way this punctures Mija's perception of reality guides the film through encounters hopeful, complex and realistic. Lee has a poet's eye and ear. His screenplay is brilliantly penned in an almost novelistic attention to detail. The cinematography is painterly, with some of the visuals appearing to have been daubed on in thick, impressionist oils.
Lee's gift is infectious, his portrait of the world incendiary and powerful, moving at a lived in clip until the final moments penetrate the stasis. Jeong-hie is the maternal force radiating the dawn of a neo-star turn which lilts everything in its wake. The word and the flesh have never felt so immediate as when Lee is manning the camera and Jeong-hie is bringing his conspicuous creation to tremblingly fragile awakening.