Lee Changdong’s new film “Poetry” is not one many people are likely to rush out and watch, despite a surprisingly healthy audience showing when I saw it. A Korean film that has been garnering steady praise over a year of touring the festival circuit, “Poetry” concerns a sixty-six year old woman, played sublimely by veteran actress Yun Junghee, who as one could have supposed from the film’s title is motivated to participate in a bi-weekly poetry class, yet struggles to fulfill the class assignment of composing a poem before the course has concluded. It very quickly transpires that the search for literary meaning is something of a metaphor for the greater quest for meaning in the midst of existential suffering, as the woman’s life variously concerns her grandson’s implication, as part of a gang rape, in a local schoolgirl’s suicide; her struggle to raise the money needed to buy the silence of the girl’s parents; the amorous advancements of an elderly man she cares for part-time; and the early on-set of Alzheimer’s disease. The complex irony of Changdong’s film lies therefore not only in the pursuit of beauty within a world full of devastating personal suffering, but also in the desire to become a master of words when this communicative faculty is rapidly deteriorating.
The film begins strongly and quickly becomes utterly absorbing, and although the second half of the film at the time seems to meander without a clear purpose the conclusion manages to justify the descent into apparent incidental narrative which immediately precedes it. Once again, I found a fascinating commentary upon the treatment of women by the inbuilt establishments of society to be lurking within the film. The grandson and five friends who participated in the continual rape of the suicide victim are hardly sighted, yet treat the grandmother with due respect when they see her: with the exception of her grandson, whose indifferent and ill-mannered behavior illustrates both his self-constructed adolescent fortress and the cold amorality of his appalling secret crimes. The narrative hides the perpetrators of the crime from the events unfolding on screen in a manner which mirrors the way their fathers have clandestinely suppressed and silenced all parties damaged by the boys’ crime. Most despicably, to safeguard their children’s futures they offer a substantial financial pay-off to the dead girl’s mother, buying her silence. The share of this sum required from the grandmother is beyond her means, and she must resort to prostituting herself to the elderly gentleman she helps to bathe and clothe to pay what is demanded of her. A girl is driven to suicide after months of being sexually abused by a group of boys, a group whose security is literally bought by their male parents by bribing the girl’s mother, yet the deal is only sealed after an old woman of limited means is similarly pushed into sexual exploitation.
As one would expect, the conclusion of the film deals with the performance of the poem finally composed by the grandmother, spoken in voice-over by the three different parties of the class tutor, the grandmother and the dead girl. Yet this final poem, sensual and beautiful in both its powerful relation to the narrative and the believable amateurism of its construction, details more than the predictable manifestation of the grandmother’s personal feelings concerning all that has happened to her. Rather, it demonstrates a spiritual symbiosis with the dead girl which neatly encapsulates the apparent randomness of the grandmother’s physical journey through the film. There is the sense that both women have suffered greatly at the hands of a patriarchal society: the grandmother hasn’t much money and lies about her close phone relationship with her daughter when the two are actually somewhat estranged, in addition to which is the often commented upon chic appearance of the woman which runs contrary to her financial worries, and the frequent allusions to her popularity with men as a young woman. When she prostitutes herself to the old man, I for one got the sense that this is not by any means her first descent into whoredom. Just as the girl suffers until her death and has only been able to communicate this suffering through the written word, in the form of a diary read following her suicide, it is only after the denouement of the grandmother’s terrible experiences that she is finally able to compose the poem that has eluded her, in part ironically due to her Alzheimer’s disease but also through the mere fact that in the eye of the emotional storm it can be impossible to view events from the distance required for creative expression. Ultimately, the grandmother cannot come to understand and truly crystallize what happened to the girl by confronting her grandson, with whom she finds it impossible to directly confront the crime and resorts to presenting him with a photo of the dead girl in a vain attempt to provoke a reaction: instead, she seeks not only empathy but also communion with what the girl suffered. As such, the grandmother visits sites associated with the girl and the crime, such as her family home, her memorial mass, the science lab in which the rapes took place, and the bridge from which she jumped and ended her life. It is this sense of mutual suffering and complete symbiotic understanding, slowly and subliminally acquired by the grandmother, which is ultimately expressed in the old woman’s poem.
This issue opens up a wider discussion of art, whether it’s in the form of a poem or a film, as a medium of expression, more specifically as the confrontation of personal trauma and the human potential for evil acts. Alongside the aforementioned idea of relative distance with the subject of expression, manifested in the film as the grandmother’s inability to write about her own pain until the events of the drama have essentially elapsed, the piece explores the notion that identification on either an actual or metaphorical plane must be present in order for a work of art to legitimately communicate its ideas about a theme or subject, manifested in the way the grandmother feels she must as far as possible share in the experience of the dead girl. Classical models of tragedy involved the fall of a high individual within society, as only a tragic descent from a great height was considered able provoke a catharsis of appropriate magnitude and provocation for the audience. Hence why Greek tragic heroes are figures from mythical history, and Shakespearean tragic heroes were socially important personae such as Kings and Princes. As tragedy moved from the ancient to the modern the subject for tragic representation shifted from those of great magnitude to the common individual, and as such a different emphasis and approach was required: instead of focusing upon the devastation an act causes to the world surrounding the individual, hence why Greek tragedies had a Chorus, the focus now has to be upon the believable and powerful representation of the effect upon the individual. With a far greater individual and intimate understanding of the tragic subject now required, is it logical to assume that the most powerful expressions of dramatic art will therefore be autobiographical, when the intimacy between artist and subject of representation is at its closest?
Take the oeuvre of Ingmar Bergman as a case in point: if the actual narratives employed in his films are not taken from his personal life, though in some cases they were, the themes explored in his films are certainly incredibly idiosyncratic. The loose faith trilogy of “Through a Glass Darkly,” “Winter Light” and “The Silence” overtly see the great filmmaker tackle his personal spiritual and theological demons, and whilst the trilogy is on a simplistic level the narration of three cases of individual quasi-religious dilemmas it is surely more profoundly understood as a three-part opus of self-confrontation, discovery and interrogation. Bergman’s acute deconstruction of his personal attitudes to death and sex in relation to the absence of God are not merely confined to this trilogy but permeate pretty much every film he made, and as such the director renders each piece of filmic expression a work of considerable and distinct autobiographical and personal concern. I have talked about Andrei Tarkovsky’s supreme cinematic allegory “Andrei Rublev” before in this blog, and the central conceit of the work bears repeating here: specifically the mirror Tarkovsky held up to his own career as an artist struggling for expression against the suppressive desires of the state and found reflected back at him the troubled life of the Medieval icon painter. I hold this film as Tarkovsky’s finest, and perhaps beyond my perception that the visual and dramatic craft of “Andrei Rublev” goes beyond the accomplishments of the director’s subsequent work, the reason my personal response to this film is so inordinately strong is because I subliminally recognise that there is so much of the director’s personal feelings about his life and work firmly imprinted onto the make-up of the celluloid.
It is of course possible to overstate this idea regarding the autobiographical being inherent in the inordinately strong works of cinematic expression: I must immediately confess that “Mirror,” Tarkovsky’s most directly autobiographical film, remains elusive and enigmatic as a piece of work to me, and hence I derive more satisfaction from his other films. Yet the role of the personal in filmmaking cannot be overstated, and by stating the individuality and idiosyncrasy of a filmmaker I refer not to style but to thematic substance, and the ideas communicated in the work. It is this deeply personal relation to a work which I strongly suggest lends itself to the most authentic moments of artistic expression: Scorsese is at his best profiling the urban and moral turmoil of Italian American characters and communities, Malick is at his most spectacular when striking the perfect balance between the drama of the form and his own leanings towards strict philosophy, and the worst Hollywood films are those rendered impersonal by the churn of multi-vocal studio development and dispassionate directors.
In relation to “Poetry,” the grandmother can only create art when she has become as close to her subject as is possible, with even the suggestion that she too has leapt from the bridge into the abyss of water and death below, and perhaps filmmakers must similarly become as personally involved in their work as possible for it to be any good. This idea flouts the idea of cinema as a commercial industry, and maybe hits upon why so much output from corporate Hollywood is so poor, but I wonder whether beyond this speculation it is possible for a film to be emotionally and dramatically powerful in creating an empathetic link between audience and character if the filmmaking talent is in any way working at a personal distance from the material.