See the beauty in everything, Mija’s poetry teacher has told her; and so, when she discovers apricots lying along a footpath, she imagines they were ready to start their next lives and hurled themselves to the ground. How pleasant it is to think of suicide this way, as something sweet and fecund. It’s the kind of idea that Mija has been straining for, and not just because she has taken it into her head, late in life, to learn to write poetry. Inescapably, though by no fault of her own, she is involved in the death of a girl who drowned herself.
Mija has journeyed to this farmland outside her provincial Korean city to speak with the girl’s mother. But the idea about the apricots diverts her so much, and she feels so relieved to have thought of it, that the purpose of the trip seems to slip her mind. Words do, too, nowadays. The doctors say it’s Alzheimer’s; and so, for the moment, nothing is more important to Mija than to pause in the shade and write down her line of verse, using the notebook she carries in her wide-mouthed woven handbag.
One of the more conspicuous props in Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry, that bag might have struck you as being less of a purse than a basket, if Mija’s manner didn’t wrap it in an air of old-fashioned gentility—a somewhat deceptive air, as it happens. By the time you get to the apricot scene, you know that even though Mija habitually dolls up in flouncy, soft-colored outfits with long skirts and lacy collars, then tops herself with a broad-brimmed summer hat, she makes ends meet at age 66 by laboring as a housemaid and homecare attendant. She strips off her ladylike street clothes to do laundry, scrub floors, wipe the bottom of an elderly stroke victim and give him his bath; and then she trots back to her little apartment to labor some more, cooking and cleaning for her teenage grandson. These struggles cannot invalidate the determination of a slight, still pretty woman to carry on uncomplainingly with a traditional, feminine smile (and the occasional muttered sarcasm); but neither do they allow her to kid herself for long. See the beauty in everything, Mija’s teacher has said; but he has also urged her to look at things as they are, and given what she knows about life, she does not understand how she can do both. By the time she has reached the dead girl’s mother and braved a conversation, the line evoking sweet, purposeful suicide has failed one of its tests.
You may judge the fullness of Poetry, a film that is beautiful and truthful alike, by the fact that just these few moments of it can yield so much—and I haven’t even touched on the narrative core of this scene. Here, as everywhere else in the movie, you find an abundance of drama, or perhaps (more precisely) catastrophe. Lee has stuffed the plot of this quiet, meditative film with rape, theft, extortion, corruption, violent death, borderline prostitution and (hanging over it all) the unthinking arrogance of men toward women—a longer list of crimes than you’ll find even in Im Sang-soo’s The Housemaid (another noteworthy recent release from Korea), though without Im’s cheerful grotesquerie. Lee, who prefers to look at things as they are, constructs a deliberately prosaic world where Mija’s employer can make a grand gesture out of tipping her the equivalent of nine bucks, and the life of a girl known as Agnes can be priced at $27,000, subject to negotiation and fees.
If powerless Mija, continually overburdened and condescended to, were to plot to get justice in this world, all the while keeping her mask of meekness in place, she would end up as a kind of Korean Pirate Jenny—and so she does. But the source of Poetry’s fullness lies in Mija’s refusal to stop at justice. As she faces the inevitable slipping away of everything—her meager income, her loutish grandson, her words, her life, the life of a girl she never knew—she resolutely searches for a beauty that is dependable and can endure.