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Poem of the Unbeautiful

Directed by Lee Chang-dong in 2010, Poetry (Original: Shi) is a Korean film and the winner of the “Best Screenplay Award” at the Cannes Film Festival, along with its success in winning and being nominated for several prizes in terms of best screenplay, best picture, best actress and best achievement in directing. The film mainly tells the story of an old woman who developed an interest in writing a poem in her late sixties when she was also diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and has trouble remembering the words. On the other hand, there is another story parallel to her interest in poetry: Her adolescent grandson whom she raises committed a crime in collaboration with five of his classmates. They raped one of their classmates who ended up committing suicide after six months of constant assault.

The main character of the film, Mija is a woman who remembers a memory after fifty years of being away from literature and poetry: When she was a child, her teacher said that she would be a good poet one day. When she sees an announcement of a poetry course in her sixties, she is walking on her way back from the hospital where the doctor predicts a certain disease about her memory. This is also when she encounters a woman whose daughter was dead; the one that has been assaulted, as Mija will learn later. The theme “poetry” follows a path along with the tension of this crime from the very start. However, old Mija always keeps herself calm no matter how stressful the situation makes her feel. Many of the critics argue that the film owes its success to its main actress and her talent in giving this calm expression along with the tension; especially considering that she acted again in a movie after 15 years of retirement. As Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan argues, “If there had been any justice at Cannes, Poetry‘s star, the acclaimed Yun Jung-hee, would have won best actress”.

Mija’s poetry course teacher insistently tells that writing a poem is about the chase for beauty in the world. Following this advice, Mija seeks the beauty in the world around her. However, it turns out that the beauty she is searching for steps away from her as the situation gets worse. She not only realizes that her grandson committed a blood curdling crime, but also the families of the other delinquent children are planning to cover up the issue by paying a generous amount of money to the family of the victimized girl. Meanwhile, the old man with hemiplegia that Mija serves as a nurse tries to harass her. She first attempts to quit her job; however, the amount of money that she has to pay to save his grandson’s future from being ruined forces her to obey the old man’s wishes. Later in the film, we can slightly sense that Mija associates herself with the victimized girl Agnes. This association becomes obvious at the end of the film when the poem that Mija finally wrote was titled “The song of Agnes”.

The situation that led Mija to write a poem turns out to be quite the contrast to what she learned in the poetry course. Being frustrated by the attempts to find the beauty of life, she writes her poem witnessing the disgrace of her grandson and sharing the destiny of the victimized girl.

The main pattern in the film is the contrast. Although it is named “poetry” which sounds elegant both in English and Korean (“shi”), it starts with a scene in which a corpse body is seen floating on the river on a calm and beautiful day. As Turan also draws attention to this contrast and the style the scene is filmed, “superimposed on a close-up of the body is the film’s title, ‘Poetry’, elegantly written in English and Korean, and it is this quietly unnerving contrast between the parallel tracks of beauty and death that is at the heart of the proceedings”. The calm yet unnerving style in the narration of the film does not refrain to touch on the serious issues such as juvenile delinquency, hardships of being a working woman, and the process of creating a piece of art.

Z. Nihan DOĞAN

Cinema researcher, born in 1992 in Istanbul/Turkey. After graduating from Department of Turkish Language and Literature of Istanbul University, she got her master's degree in Cultural Studies at Şehir University with her dissertation titled "The Making of a Cinema Culture through Cinema Magazines in Early Republican Turkey (1923-1928): The Business, Stars, and Audience". She currently is a Ph. D. Candidate in Media and Communication Studies Program of Galatasaray University, working on her dissertation about contemporary Turkish cinema. Among her fields of interest can be mentioned vernacular cinema, society of consumption, postcolonial studies, and semiotics. She has a specific interest in traditional Islamic art, learns manuscript ornamentation, likes being behind the scenes, and has recently been learning Japanese. On Günce Sinema, she aims to focus on East Asian Cinema, popular culture, and audience studies.

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