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“Poetry” is one of those films that I have been looking forward to for years, and started watching occasionally, only to realise each time that no, now is not the time, now is not the right mood. It’s strange how this sometimes works, how a film can communicate from minute one that it is special and worthwhile, maybe even excellent, and still resists being started at an arbitrary moment. It made me wait until it called on me, told me “now is the right time”, and no surprise, when that happened I was immediately immersed and enchanted.
This is not the odd Korean “police man with mother issues” or “domestic abuse provoking vicious revenge” kind of film. It has an almost European calmness to it, a focus on one character who is neither a hero nor a victim. It is an ageing woman we are witnessing struggling with her health and her family, and who seeks to find something more in life than meeting the expectations of working and caring for her family. This is where the title stems from, she checks into the local adult education poetry class, and through this finds the liberty to do what she had done before: look at the world with wondrous eyes, allowing herself to focus on beauty and harmony rather than getting entangled in all the petty challenges life throws at her. Those challenges she has to deal with, too, such as the fact that her daughter has more or less dumped her son at his grandmothers’, and that this son is rather unpleasant and ungrateful piece of work. Or that a crime happens and the elderly lady has to deal with the consequences of that crime, and finds herself in the midst of machinations that she cannot possibly identify with.
The film’s beauty comes from two things: The first is the calm camera that allows actress Yun Junghee to elegantly stroll or sit through her life, appreciating her usually moderate pace and upright composure. She tries to maintain some virtues and culture in the midst of a society that frequently does not care about such things. The second is the seriousness with which poetry as a means of expression is treated, with a teacher who is almost comical in his earnest reminders about the importance of this literary form, and about the help he wants to give with students in at least catching a glimpse of it. I was tempted to (silently) mock this odd counter-culture of poetry readings, introductions of the new hopeful poetry masters and the various discussions about how to create the right mindset for writing a poem. But the film is too truthful to allow that, the characters on screen have so serious and unadulterated dedication to the subject that even silent mocking is not called for.
I am often hard-pressed to remember the ending of a film, and justify that to myself by the ending being only a minute detail in a much larger narrative and composition. In this case that will be different: in the same way particularly ill-conceived final acts or scenes can seriously spoil the pleasure of watching a film, “Poetry” has one of the most satisfying endings I have seen in a long time. Again, it is honest and truthful to the characters, whether it is happy or not is up to everybody to decide. What it is in any case is beautifully written and directed, a memorable completion of what we have seen before.

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