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August 16, 2010 | by  | in Film |
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Director: Lee Chang-dong

In the wake of the release of Peppermint Candy, the film’s director, Lee Chang-dong, came under fire for the ‘gendered’ approach to South Korean history that the film seemed to advocate. One prominent critic, Kim So-young, suggested it rendered the struggles of women in South Korean history “invisible”; indeed, the title of her essay boldly stated, ‘Do Not Include Me In Your Us’. It’s not odd, then, that Lee addresses that critique in his latest film, Poetry, a scathing attack on the exploitative and patriarchal ways of modern South Korean society, and essentially a direct response to Kim’s criticisms.

Poetry’s focus is squarely on our female protagonist, the kind-hearted and unappreciated grandmother Miji. The stroke sufferer she looks after sexually harasses her; her grandson is a disinterested, lazy shit; her daughter is too focused on her career to care about either Miji or the son she left behind. When Miji’s grandson and his friends are incriminated in a local girl’s suicide, their guilt unquestionable, she finds herself being cajoled by the boys’ rich fathers into coming up with five million won as a ‘settlement’ for the dead girl’s family. Miji’s meagre income is of no concern to them. She escapes from these pressures through a poetry class, searching for “poetic inspiration”, and slowly coming to terms with the world around her and the position it’s forced her into.

The film’s power hinges on Yoon Jeong-hee’s performance as Miji, and she delivers in stunning fashion. She perfectly encapsulates Miji’s apparent need to be everything to everyone, and it’s hard not feel a profound sadness for her as she reluctantly allows herself to be exploited by a society that couldn’t care less about her. Meanwhile, Lee’s direction is typically incredible, the striking stillness of his camera as poetic and evocative of the anxieties bubbling under Miji’s surface. The film suffers from Lee’s apparent struggle with making the revealing of life-shaking criminal activity seem realistic, but with Poetry and his previous film, Secret Sunshine, Lee’s ‘us’ is no longer gendered or restricted by age or infirmity—rather, it is all-encompassing, universal.

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