A Film Review

image: Sad in shower
(“Poetry”, 2010, Chang-dong Lee)
Early in this film elderly caregiver Jang Mi-ja learns that she is coming down with Alzheimer's disease. Given the other obstacles she faces, namely
1) raising an unruly miscreant of a grandson,
image: With Grandson
2) fending off employer sexual advances, and
image: With Employer
3) learning to write poetry,
image: Writing poetry
you might expect a tense fast-moving film. But no. This is a slow-moving character study. A character study in which it is difficult to get inside the protagonist's head. There is no voice over; there is no talking problems over with other people. For almost the entire film we must judge Mi-Ja's character from her actions. Then just when we are full of curiosity about what's going on inside that head, we get a poem.
This not a poem we would associate with a person of Mi-Ja's background, especially since she has such a hard time getting started. But there are two things to remember. First Korea is a country that tries to give everybody a solid education. Regardless of her social class, Mi-Ja is not illiterate. Second in this film we are led to believe by Mi-Ja's poetry teacher that poetry requires nothing more than an ability to see into the essence of things, including one's own soul.
Mi-Ja's poem does show us what's inside her. She has a deep concern with a young girl's suicide, a suicide that her grandson is partly responsible for. What Mi-Ja thinks and does about this are best discovered by watching the film but it is worth mentioning some characteristics of Korean culture here.
Family ties are close in Korea. Mi-Ja feels responsibility for her grandson's actions. She isn't alone in this. Her grandson hasn't acted by himself and the families of some of his friends bear responsibility as well. Together they consider paying reparations.
Now reparations are a way of admitting responsibility without involving the law. Reparations can be paid to hush things up or simply because the harmed party deserves something more than “I'm sorry”. We see both motivations in this film.
Sometimes reparations are called “blood money”. We Americans tend to look down on blood money without realizing we have a similar concept. It's called a “tort”. A tort is a claim that someone has been harmed and deserves compensation. The claim is handled in a civil court. In 1995 there was a case, in which a civil court forced a famous football player, O.J. Simpson, to pay compensation for a murder that the criminal courts were unable to convict him of.
The reparations discussed in “Poetry” can be a way of avoiding criminal court. No doubt this is a system that enables some rich people to avoid legal consequences but we ought not be too critical of Korea for that. In the U.S. the rich avoid some convictions by hiring fancy lawyers. Both systems have a secondary system of paying reparations which provides victim compensation and makes getting off scot-free more difficult for the rich.
Mi-Ja has a complex moral problem to solve and, being lower on the socio-economic ladder than the other families in this film, there are practical constraints as well. To accept her solutions you may have to look beyond some of your attitudes towards life, death, and moral responsibility. Do so and you will finish the movie with respect and compassion for this gentle, elderly home health care worker.
J Adrian Zimmer
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