Poetry overcomes its sentimental plot with a series of harsh obstacles
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By description, Poetry sounds like the worst sort of sentimental claptrap: Woman in early onset of Alzheimer’s takes a poetry class to capture the beauty of the world in words that will increasingly elude her. But in the hands of Korean writer-director Lee Chang-dong (Oasis, Secret Sunshine), it’s anything but—touching and emotional, yes, but surprisingly tough in the obstacles it throws in her way and her quiet determination to find some grace in a situation others would find hopeless. In a wonderful performance, Yun Jung-hee stars as a 66-year-old widow who supplements her income doing humiliating work for an elderly man. At home, she has to take care of her sullen, foul teenage grandson, who appreciates nothing she does for him and pays her no respect. Yun enjoys a respite from all this grief at a poetry class, but one day she learns that her grandson and five other boys have repeatedly raped a girl from their school and the girl has subsequently committed suicide.
There’s a lot of unseemly business involving the rape and suicide: In addition to the shame, anger, and helplessness she feels at the news, she also has to deal with the other boys’ parents, who want to settle the matter with money. But Yun seeks her own, infinitely more courageous and thoughtful form of settlement, all while still striving to use poetry to see the world in a different way that she ever had before. Her sincere attempt to reinvent herself in the third act of her life is inspiring enough, but between the looming threat of Alzheimer’s and the horrors unleashed by her grandson, it’s downright heroic.
Availability: Streaming on Netflix—along with Lee’s Secret Sunshine, for further viewing—and available for purchase on DVD/BD via Kino.