Rhyme and Reason
by Claude Mouchard
Sep 23, 2010 | 1471 views | 0 0 comments | 24 24 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Mija, the main character in Poetry, the latest film by Lee Chang-dong (Secret Sunshine, 2007), lives alone with her moody adolescent grandson. She earns a living by taking care of a half-paralyzed old man. Though her life may seem grubby and she faces tragedy, including the onset of Alzheimer’s, Mija enjoys her freedom in her own way. Others find her grace odd. Her freshness and fragility recall a flower petal, concealing the fierce determination hidden underneath.

Poetry is as light as the air but also painful. One must feel it by each moment. Poetry exists in each corner of this film, and it also functions as connection. Characters blend into each other. A strong allegorical current runs throughout the film, like a question that one takes back with them in his or her heart. My own questions to the director follow.

Claude Mouchard: When do you decide the film’s title? When and how did you come up with the idea of making a film about poetry using the title Poetry?

Lee Chang-dong: Normally I decide the film title at a fairly early stage. If I don’t do this, I cannot convince myself that the film will be made at all. A few years ago, there was a case where several teenage boys from a small rural city gang-raped a middle school girl. For quite some time, I’ve been thinking of this act of violence, but wasn’t sure how I would tell this story on film. At first. I thought of a plot in Raymond Carver’s short story, “So Much Water So Close to Home,” but it seemed a bit cliché. Then one morning in a hotel room in Kyoto, Japan, I was watching TV when the title Poetry just came to me. It was a TV program made for tourists spending sleepless nights. I watched the screen, playing meditative music to the extremely typical landscape of birds flying over a peaceful river and fishermen throwing their fishnets. It hit me that this film dealing with this insidious crime could have no other title than Poetry. The main character and plot were conceived almost at the same time. My companion during that trip was an old friend who is a poet. When I told him about the title and the plot I was thinking of that night, he negatively commented on it as an extremely reckless project. He warned me that the several successes I had with my previous films, although they may have been small successes, had made me overly confident. But strangely enough, his words only reinforced my conviction.

Mouchard: When did you first decide to explore the subject of dementia?

Lee: Dementia was a word that came to me almost at the same time I thought of all three key elements of the film: the title, Poetry; a female character in her sixties attempting for the first time in her life to write a poem; and an old lady bringing up a teenage boy all by herself. As our protagonist learns poetry, she begins to forget words as well. Dementia clearly alludes to death.

Mouchard: The poet conducting the lecture never talks about the techniques of poetry writing, but emphasizes scrupulous attention to “really seeing things.” Likewise, can we relate poetry to film?

Lee: Yes. “To see things well” refers to poetry, but it refers to film as well. Certain films help us see the world in a different light. Some films let us see only what we want to see. Others keep us from seeing anything.

Mouchard: Poetry is a central theme of this film. At the same time, I believe the structure of this film has a close relation with poetry.

Lee: Like a page with a poem on it, I thought of a film with a lot of empty space. This empty space can be filled in by the audience. In this sense, you can say this is an “open” film… In the face of a film’s blank spaces, the audience can make a choice or rather play a hidden game that requires a moral choice, just like the protagonist has to. Of course such games can be too subtle for the audience to even recognize.

Mouchard: You ask the question, “What is poetry in a time when poetry is dying away?” And you also commented that it is a question directed toward the cinema in a time when the cinema is dying away.

Lee: I just wanted to throw this question at the audience. The audience now holds the key to the answer to this question. Nevertheless, one of my thoughts on poetry is that it sings on behalf of someone’s emotions and thoughts. If someone were to ask me why I make films, I could answer by saying, “I am telling your story on your behalf.”
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