Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Poetry (original title "Shi")

MPAA (Not rated) CNS/USCCB () Roger Ebert (3 ½ stars) Fr. Dennis (3 stars)

IMDb Listing - http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1287878/
CNS/USCCB Review -
Roger Ebert's Review- http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20110224/REVIEWS/110229993/1023

Poetry (original title, Shi) a South Korean movie written and directed by Chang-dong Lee first caught my eye when it was mentioned by several people on the IMDb’s Oscars' discussion board as one of the Best unnominated films/performances of 2010. Then it happened to be playing at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre this week.

One of the joys of the movies is that one can use them to enter, however briefly, into other places, cultures and times. One of the frustrations of international films is, however, that no matter well these movies are subtitled or dubbed, the films are at least initially disorienting, that is, until one gets a grasp of the film-makers’ intentions as well as their films’ conventions and forms. Hollywood’s films, even the good/great ones, are famously formulaic. Films produced in other countries for their domestic consumption are also generally formulaic. Most complex however, are movies clearly intended for international audiences. It’s as if producers of such films fall into the trap of believing that they must pack in as much of the problematics of their country or culture as possible in the 2-3 hours that they have alotted in their film.

Poetry appears to me to be a very good, though very typical example of such an international film: there are at least three stories, each compelling in its own right, taking place simultaneously. Together, the three stories do add up to more than the sum of their parts, however at the cost of some clarity. I’m more or less positive that Hollywood would have counseled that the stories be taken separately and used as fodder for 2-3 separate and unrelated films.

The central character is Mija (played by Jeong-hie Yun), a South Korean grandmother living in Seoul and raising her teenage grandson Jongwook (played by Da-wit Lee), while his mother works in a factory in Pusan at the other end of the country. (Veterans of the Korean War or those who've studied it, will know these as place names well). Jongwook appears to have no father to speak of. Mija takes care of him out of a sense of obligation and resignation and Jongwook, being early in his teens, is both utterly clueless and hence utterly ungrateful for what Mija is doing for him. Mija is also becoming “forgetful” ... Finally, Mija as seniors often do, signs up for an activity, a Poetry class, at a community center and this class clearly gives her life.

Fairly early in the movie, Jongwook becomes more than a mere ungrateful annoyance when Mija is informed by the a number of fathers of his similarly loutish friends that Jongwook along with these other boys was implicated in the rape of a young teenage girl who subsequently jumped off a bridge committing suicide. The fathers wish to payoff the mother of the deceased girl so that she does not press charges thus “saving" their sons’ "futures.”

Not only does Mija not have ready access to the kind of money needed (though she would have a way), she seems clearly conflicted in participating in such a scheme. Was Mija’s own daughter raped in a similar way when her daughter was young, explaining the absence of a father for Jongwook? Was Mija herself raped/abused in the same way when _she_ was young? In any case, while the other fathers are in agreement as to what to do, Mija is clearly an unenthusiastic participant. Worse, Jongwook acts as if nothing at all had happened and remains simply an bad mannered and largely clueless (immature) child in Mija’s home. Mija’s new found poetry class offers potentially some respite or salvation, but Mija is also getting “forgetful.”

The movie then plays out in a poignant manner that the reader can probably put together from the pieces given above.

In the background of this terrible story of Mija and her family are some truly beautiful and tragic scenes of daily life in contemporary South Korea. The girl who was raped and subsequently committed suicide was Catholic (reminding viewers that at substantial portion of South Korea’s population _is_ Catholic). Then her family lived in the countryside at the outskirts of Seoul. This is beautiful country, but also brings to mind issues of economics and social class, as well as further poignancy of what it must have been for a country family to lose a daughter who up until her sudden rape/death might have been giving hope to the family of "making it" in the city.

The get togethers of the poetry class are both fun and at times conflicting as clearly language, even the language of poetry can be used to express a multitude of thoughts, impressions and intentions. And then there is Mija with so much going on in her life, finding it increasingly difficult to express herself at all...

This is a great and, as often is the case with “international films,” a _sad_ story. There will be American women whose blood will certainly start to boil/curdle as this story plays out. Poetry is _not_ the first story of previously largely untold women’s pain to come out on screen in recent years. I think of the recent Hollywood movie Defiance about the otherwise heroic pursuits of the Bielsky brothers who had led a specifically Jewish partisan movement in the forests of Nazi occupied Byelorussia during World War II. One of the horrors given voice in that movie was that of the Jewish women of that time who did not necessarily feel _safe_ around the Jewish men (who took “forest wives”) even as those men were nominally "protecting" them.

I am positive, however, that these kind of stories of specifically women’s suffering will increasingly common for the foreseeable future as both men and women come to grips with the violence against women, both past and present, that until recently was rarely if ever discussed.

Seniors, especially senior women would probably like / relate to this film as it is about a senior woman with definitely a story to tell.

Note to parents: While there is no nudity in the picture or onscreen violence, the themes presented are clearly intended for an adult audience. I don't think that a lot of teenagers would really understand this movie, even if one of the main characters in the story is an obviously "clueless" and largely ungrateful teen.

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