It's easy to misjudge the South Korean drama, "Poetry." From the outside, it might appear as another mawkish tale of self-discovery, with an older woman finally seizing the finer triumphs of the world in the twilight of her life, tasting her surrounding at the very moment it's all about to be taken away from her. Instead, "Poetry" is a far more pained, unsentimental picture, investigating the commotion raging inside a perplexed grandmother, generating over two hours of spellbinding introspection.
Living a quiet life with her unappreciative grandson Wook (Lee David), Mija (Yun Jung-hee, who hasn't acted in a film since 1994) looks to make ends meet through part-time work as a caretaker for the handicapped man. Receiving a diagnosis of Alzheimer's from her doctor, Mija is eager to find a creative outlet to help ease her fragile mind, soon joining a poetry class to broaden her horizons. Enthusiastically accepting the taxing writing challenge, Mija is confronted with a world she's never taken time to study, striving to piece together her thoughts and create art. Unexpectedly, a crisis comes to thwart her progress, learning that Wook was involved in the suicide of a classmate, leaving Mija devastated, forced to scrounge up the considerable amount of money required to make the crime disappear.
"Poetry" is a delicately arranged feature that's unbelievably skilled at generating unease -- not a jagged, terror approach that holds the picture in a suspenseful death grip, but a nerve pinch that locks in for 130 minutes. While the temptation is there to keep the film in a state of shock, writer/director Lee Chang-dong creates a knotted journey for Mija, where her creative efforts and her domestic concerns find an unanticipated middle ground, forcing the troubled woman to juggle the newfound beauty of life with her grim reality.
The juxtaposition of wonder and dire recognition is the primary component to "Poetry," keeping the camera trained on the main character as she absorbs all the positive and negative thrown at her, desperate to turn this disorder into personal art on the page. As much as the film details the fallout from the suicide, it also studies the birth of a stimulated soul, with Mija taking in her surroundings for the first time, stopping to study fruit, nature, and her own memories, hoping to build the same inspiration that comes so naturally to her fellow classmates. While the character is hit with unbelievable horrors, she keeps on task, always scribbling in her notebook as she takes care of Wook's ugly business.
The performance from Yun Jung-hee is nothing short of exceptional, holding "Poetry" in a place of unsettling composure, communicating fright and indignities with a perfectly measured bit of acting that articulates an intricate situation with a mere quake of her eyes. While "Poetry" is on the lengthy side, the glacial pace is rewarded with a full appreciation of Mija's actions and revelations, deepening the viewing experience with every last absorption of life.
"Poetry" is such a restrained picture, it almost feels like it misses a grand opportunity to leap into thriller mode. Yet, at the end of this film, the significance of Mija's experience is felt in full, creeping up on the viewer in a manner that mirrors the effect of great creative writing.