Things as They Are

Things as They Are

Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry, Jorge Michel Grau’s We Are What We Are, Ron Howard’s The Dilemma


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.

I have seen Poetry twice—once at the 2010 New York Film Festival, where everyone seemed to think it the finest selection on the slate, and once as I prepared to write this column and give the film the lengthier consideration it demands. Nothing much changed between those two viewings, except that my admiration for Yun Jung-hee as Mija deepened into awe.

Needless to say, Yun inhabits Mija. The critical issue is the way Yun inhabits Mija’s own performance in life, which might be described as erratic. Sometimes Mija fulfills social conventions—giggling on cue at a token compliment, for example, with a modest evasion of the other person’s eyes. Just as often, though, she loses track of her assigned role: forgetting all but the merest pretense of sweet good manners as she dares the registrar at the cultural center to keep her out of the poetry class; or wandering abstractedly out of a meeting—right out of the building, in fact—to gaze with outthrust head and slumped shoulders at an irrelevancy; or flailing about on the street, with little hops from foot to foot as she makes her grandson play badminton with her, to get the exercise the doctors say she needs.

Of course, there’s a great tradition in Asian cinema of exposing the gap between a woman’s feelings and the ritualized behavior expected of her. (To cite just one example, think of Naruse’s When a Woman Ascends the Stairs.) Part of what makes Yun’s performance in Poetry so stunning, though, is that she plays Mija as if there were no gap. Yun achieves her deepest moment of pathos, perhaps, in a monologue delivered in the poetry class, where she instills just one drop of loss and sadness into a recollection of getting dressed up prettily at age 3. (It’s Mija’s happiest memory.) Yun saves her biggest fortissimo for a scene with Mija’s grandson, where her raised voice and frantic gestures crash uselessly against the young man’s disrespectful silence. And when the moment comes to reveal a lighter, unsuspected side to Mija, Yun (who has appeared in more than 300 films) rounds out the character by abruptly singing a sockeroo karaoke number. From these examples, you can see the variety of resources Yun brings to her job—but, more important, you may understand how consistently she uses them, creating a character in whom vanity is indistinguishable from lifelong ideals; and ideals can either reinforce decorum or shatter it, as if these supposedly separate elements were her limbs, her breath, her heartbeat.

It is a classic performance—and it had better be, because Lee makes Mija the focal point of most of his shots and every scene. And yet the visual style of Poetry—as smooth-flowing and unhurried as the film’s fatal river—never forces Mija on you and seldom isolates her. Shown often in middle-distance and long shots, she is usually seen as part of the life of a classroom, a grocery store, a neighborhood street, a restaurant gathering. You might say that Lee the director gets out of the way of Lee the screenwriter. For all the self-effacement of his style, though, its motifs run through the film as insistently as—again—that river. Water is everywhere in the picture: at the scene of the girl’s death, in the stroke victim’s apartment (where it eventually makes things dirtier rather than cleaner), in the shower (where Mija at last breaks down and weeps), in the cloudburst that accompanies Mija’s trip to the country. Stopping at the place where the corpse was discovered, she opens her notebook to try to write something, and we see a close-up of the blank page as it begins to receive marks—not from her pen, but from the raindrops spattering down.

Nature, weeping, writes when Mija can’t. I suppose some viewers will dismiss this image as a pathetic fallacy (though whether that concept is at all germane to Korean poetry, I don’t know). But I can tell you that the rain’s writing, unlike the line about the apricots, is true to Mija’s experience, true to the horror of what happened to the girl, and utterly beautiful. I hope I’m not giving away too much when I say that Mija, who is too strong to allow the rain to do her work for her, finds her own way to write at the end. You should see how. Poetry will open on February 11.

* * *

Finally, a family that really is unhappy in its own way. Patricia is the lank-haired, hollow-eyed, perpetually furious mother; Sabina, the nubile daughter dressed at all hours in a nightgown and a manipulative air; Julián, her pouty brother with the terrible temper and quick fists; Alfredo, the mild son who grooms himself so carefully to look normal. The father of this brood (or their leader, as they sometimes call him) has just dropped dead, amid a pool of vomited blood, at the shopping mall, where he liked to stare at the mannequins. Now the family finds itself without support in its ramshackle, sunless apartment in a Mexico City housing project.

If the unhappiness does not yet sound distinctive, then consider that “support,” in Jorge Michel Grau’s We Are What We Are, means something different from what it would in the average cinematic excursion into urban poverty. The family is about to go hungry, yes; but the “something” the leader was supposed to bring back to feed them might have been a vagrant, a homeless child from under the highway, an incautious taxi driver or (to Mom’s disgust) one of the streetwalkers old Dad used to find so savory.

A test for the critical faculties as much as the gag reflexes, We Are What We Are plays the fiendish trick of behaving like a genre movie while dispensing with the hints of allegory that usually justify art-house thrillers. Grau does not propose that the poorer margins of society in Mexico City (very ample “margins” they are, too) resemble a horror movie where desperate people feed off one another. He simply shows people feeding off one another in Mexico City, as if the horror movie were a neorealist drama. We Are What We Are? That might be the exculpatory motto not just for the story’s characters but for its events.

Directed with the brio of an old-style Wes Craven shocker, We Are What We Are roams with a fevered spirit but clear eyes through the markets, streets, subways and even discos of the city. But the center of the movie, and its deepest horror, remains at home, where the emotional interplay among mother, sister and brothers rivals the sharpness of teeth sinking into human flesh. It will be released on February 18 at the IFC Center in New York and on demand on IFC Midnight video.

* * *

Just when I thought American pop filmmaking was dead, The Dilemma slipped into theaters in the depths of January. Directed by Ron Howard with his usual high-gloss efficiency, written by Allan Loeb with deference to most (though not all) commercial imperatives, and marketed by Universal as if it were just another comedy of love and misbehavior between aging frat boys, The Dilemma nevertheless turns out to have a touch of real, disquieting life.

In Chicago, the movie city where regular guys live, two friends who are regular enough to be Vince Vaughn and Kevin James devote their working lives to the sexual mystique of muscle cars. But what do these men really have under the hood? It seems that James, nervous enough for someone half his weight, must not have been satisfying his wife (Winona Ryder); while the towering, slack-bellied and liquid-tongued Vaughn reacts to the prospect of a lifetime with Jennifer Connelly (an appealing proposition to most regular guys) by going into a film-length anxiety attack. He has just learned, at 40, that the intimate relationships of grown-ups are not always what they seem and cannot always be easily moralized.

Some of this is played for laughs; a surprising proportion of it is not. And the biggest surprise of all is that after The Dilemma has announced its themes of friendship, honesty and trust—they’re not just written into the dialogue but highlighted in yellow marker—it has something unspoken left to say.

Before he’ll face someone else’s emotions, the regular guy would rather be clubbed with a baseball bat.

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