Korean writer-director Lee Chang-dong makes movies that are difficult to reduce to a pithy description; they’re dramas that unfold gradually, following their protagonists one step at a time through a series of trials both grand and subtle. In Lee’s Poetry, the lead is Yun Jung-hee, a 66-year-old woman who works as a maid for a stroke-ridden but libidinous older man, and then goes home to take care of her brooding teenage grandson. Lee seeks fulfillment by taking a poetry class, but she’s struggling with the early stages of Alzheimer’s, and each day finds that more words are slipping out of her head. Then she gets news that her grandson is an incorrigible delinquent implicated in a horrific crime, and her condition worsens.
There’s a lot of setup involved with Poetry, and too much of the film consists of chunky exposition, as characters meet, introduce each other, and explain what’s going on. Whenever all the pieces are in place, though, Lee reverts to the kind of storytelling he does best, watching his heroine as her troubles force her out of her usual routine. Early in Poetry, Yun carries herself lightly, excusing her occasional Alzheimer’s-related lapses by laughing that she’s just “out of it today.” Then, as she continues with her class, Yun becomes frustrated by her inability to describe the world in her little notebook. She’s also sidetracked by the matter of her grandson, and spends time staring at him, and visiting the scenes of his alleged crimes, trying to determine what happened.
Poetry doesn’t always overcome its plottiness. (A movie called Poetry shouldn’t be this prosaic.) But at every stage, Lee pauses to ponder and illustrate how Yun is handling change. Early on, her poetry instructor rhapsodizes about the beauty of the blank page—“the world before creation”—and throughout the movie, Lee returns to Yun’s book of blank pages, which get splattered with fat raindrops, and used to pass blackmail notes back and forth. (Two very different forms of poetry, in other words.) This is a movie about how in the throes of inspiration, phrases follow each other organically, leading the poet to places she didn’t know she was headed when she began. But for Yun, that journey is terrifying, with only blackness ahead.