Poetry (2011) – Chang-dong Lee

Poetry, from South Korea, is about decency. It also views morality in the way Kieslowski’s films do, as situational, not absolute. This very sad but hopeful film is buoyed by an exceptional performance by Yun Jung-hee as a grandmother who is in the early stages of dementia. She has every reason to be bitter as the people she takes care of in her life abuse and ignore her. At her age she looks after an older man who’s not in better shape than she is and her grandson who has been forced upon her by his mother. Despite their insensitivity, she makes gestures for their betterment, playing badminton in the street with the grandson and providing a beyond kind gesture to the old man.

She joins a poetry group that lets her focus on the positives in the world, which becomes more difficult as she’s diagnosed with a degenerative disease and her grandson runs with the very worst kind of crowd. Poetry is delicate and so this film, which is only peripherally about poetry takes on the form of a long poem of dignity and grace, both of which Yun Jung-hee possesses in spades. It’s really her movie and it’s possible that were she not so empathetic and decent that the narrative, which is slightly cloying, would fall apart. Director Chang-dong Lee doesn’t have Kieslowski’s mastery of moral dilemmas and often times the story seems spread thin over the movies 2 hour and 20 minute running time. Still, this is a powerhouse performance that totally immerses you in the life of the character.

I was watching Warrior the other day for the second time. The first time I found myself connecting with Joel Edgerton’s character, who is fighting in the mixed marshal arts tournament to save his house from foreclosure and his wife and two kids from an uncertain future. This second time I found myself feeling for Tom Hardy’s character, the angry young man who’s violence is the result of deep emotional wounds inflicted on him by his father. There is a large potential for this character to be unlikeable, he’s surly and dismissive and angry all the time, and certainly the person I was watching the movie with was rooting against him. But on second viewing, I found in Hardy’s performance a real hurt that I missed the first time and he was able to make me empathize with a person who is putting up barriers for everyone around him. The point of this diversion is this; Tom Hardy made me enter into his character’s life. The same thing occurred during Poetry but immediately and completely. There’s still a lot of mystery about her character and we wonder what she thinks about things without ever questioning her actions. It’s a remarkable performance that pulls a much more difficult trick than even Hardy’s sympathetic jerk, here she makes us feel for a woman who’s kindness is repaid with cruelty, which is easy enough, but also makes us understand and agree that the appropriate response to such cruelty is more kindness.

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