Poetry: Learning to see what you’d rather overlook

Early in his film, Korean writer-director Chang-dong Lee tells us his theme.  Holding an apple, the teacher tells his students that, to write poetry, you must first see, really see the world around you.  Mija is a 66-year-old pensioner in his class who works part-time as a caregiver for a stroke victim and is raising her sullen slob of a teenage grandson. She struggles with the poetry, but she does begin to see the people in her world with clarity – and it’s not a pretty picture.  What she learns to see is human behavior ranging from the venal to the inhumane.

The key to the film’s success is the performance of Jeong-hie Yun as Mija, a protagonist who spends the entire movie observing. Her doctor tells her that her failing memory is the start of something far worse.  Sometimes she doesn’t see what we see because she is distracted.  But sometimes she doesn’t act like she sees because of denial or avoidance.  Sometimes she is disoriented.  But she has moments of piercing lucidity, and those moments are unsparing.

This unhurried film is troubling, uncomfortable and very, very good.

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