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Wednesday, October 5,2011

Screening Room

Korean screen legend's performance is pure 'Poetry'

by James Sanford

In her class at the cultural center,
Mija (Yun Jung-Hee) is told by her teacher that everyone has poetry
inside his or her heart. 

She's not sure she believes it, though. 

A 66-year-old South Korean trying to
raise her surly 16-year-old grandson, Wook, while toiling as a maid for
a wealthy stroke victim, Mija wants very badly to be a poet, but she's
frustrated by how difficult it is to find that elusive inspiration.

“Where should I go?” she asks the
instructor, as if he could give her a map to the proper place. Mija's
mission is the driving force in director Lee Chang-Dong's often
eloquent “Poetry,” a film that opens and closes with images of a
burbling river, a metaphor for life itself, which frequently moves
faster than we think and takes us, sometimes against our will, into
situations we wish we didn't have to face.

Considering “Poetry” involves a
horrifying crime, sexual frustration and the struggle to scrape
together 5 million won (approximately $40,000) to pay off an unexpected
debt, this is an astonishingly quiet, even meditative story. 

There is no musical score, only the
noises of the bustling little urban center where Mija and Wook live and
the more soothing sounds of the countryside, where Mija begins to
realize her creative potential. 

Lee has a tendency to dwell on scenes with the intensely analytical eye of a filmmaker like Jean-Luc Godard. 

Sometimes this technique pays off,
yielding riveting details and bringing unexpected complexities to the
surface (most notably in a stunner of a sequence involving Mija and her
employer). There are also times when a bit of judicious editing would
have been a relief; the movie is at least 20 minutes too long.

Much of the poetry heard during the
lengthy readings Mija attends has apparently lost some of its grace in
translation, but Yun's yearning expressions and complete captivation as
she listens — she seems to be locking away every word for future
reference — is more than enough to convince us how much the work
affects her. Yun, a legendary South Korean star who came out of
retirement to make this film, marvelously communicates Mija's
all-consuming desire to learn and her nearly paralyzing self-doubt,
which constantly threatens to hold her back.

She's also astonishingly fine in her
silent but unmistakably offended reactions to the male-dominated
culture she's locked into. Whether it's the mouthy Wook bossing her
around, or a group of fathers that treats her like a servant instead of
an equal, Mija always seems to be running up against men who want to
write her off as a daffy, distracted old eccentric in fussy,
pastel-saturated outfits. Mija is far stronger and wiser than they
suspect, although she keeps her power to herself, perhaps knowing they
won't understand or appreciate it anyhow.

No viewer will fail to realize that Mija
is something special, though. Even when “Poetry” rambles, Yun's superb
performance commands — and rewards — your attention.


East Lansing Film Society

7:30 p.m. tonight and

Thursday, Oct. 6, Hannah Community Center, 819 Abbot Road, East Lansing; 7  and 9 p.m. Friday, Oct. 7 and Saturday, Oct. 8; 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 9, Wells Hall, Michigan State University

$7 adults; $5 seniors; $3 students

(517) 980-5802



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