The Blank Page: Poetry

FILM, Film Festivals

The latest from novelist-turned-filmmaker Lee Chang-dong.

I appear to be in the minority when it comes to critical appraisals of Lee Chang-dong. His first two films showed great promise, and despite occasional excess in Oasis (2002), Lee showed that he has a good feel for subtext. But Secret Sunshine (2007) was overwrought, overemphatic, and lacked subtlety. To my mind, Poetry fares little better.

Speaking at a press conference, the modesty of Lee’s aspirations were evident when he said, “Poetry is more than a literary genre. It is what is invisible, what cannot be calculated in monetary value… Poetry is not a little flower. It is the world, it is life. No matter how ugly the outside is, there is always something very beautiful inside.” Hmm. The problem I have with Lee’s films is that they seem emotionally calculated. They pander to the viewer, relying too much on exposition through dialogue and disingenuous appeals to the emotions, to the extent that I find it difficult to trust him as an artist.

It’s obvious that Yun Jung-lee is ‘playing’ the central character of Mija. One is so aware of her technique (this is how I do ‘elderly vulnerability’) that even her hat, scarf, and handbag have an awkward, over-considered theatricality. She’s not alone; many of the performances are writ-large, reminiscent of overly gestural silent film acting where everything is aimed at the back row. Lee’s depiction of so-called ‘normal unassuming everyday people’ seems contrived and patronising, and the near-trademark inclusion of a character suffering a debilitating condition allows Kim Hira to portray Mr Kang (an aging stroke victim) with every inch of bathos at his disposal. To be fair, this appears to be Kim’s first role, so it would be just my luck to discover that the guy wasn’t acting! Oops.

Lee insists on telegraphing or emphasising almost every nuance, leaving little room for the viewer to negotiate their own way through the film. Consequently, there is very little subtlety. However, there are some nice moments, such as when Mija’s hat is lifted by a sudden gust of wind, nicely prefiguring an important later event, or when she recalls a very early childhood memory of her older sister encouraging her to crawl towards her, or when raindrops spot the blank page Mija struggles to make a poetic mark on. But then Lee goes and pops Mija in the shower where she can ‘hide her tears’. Groan. In the closing moments of Lee’s (deliberately?) ironically titled film, something approaching real poetry emerges in the same way that Secret Sunshine closed on a genuinely sombre, fleetingly contemplative note.

Lee Chang-dong has undeniable talent, and most audiences (and critics) seem to be perfectly happy with the films he creates, but there is a tougher side to him that, in my view, has yet to be realised.

Dir. Lee Chang-dong
Korea, 2009; 139 minutes
In Korean with English subtitles
Featuring: Yun Jung-lee, Lee David, Kim Hira.
Screening: Auckland, Wellington. For New Zealand International Film Festival dates, programme details, and screenings in other regions, visit nzff.co.nz.