09. A Separation
08. Rise of the Planet of the Apes
07. Julia's Eyes
06. 13 Assassins
04. The Messenger
And finally, 01...
Poetry Shi (Lee Chang-dong/South Korea/139mins)
The opening scenes of Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry set up an intriguing premise that the rest of the film delicately, and at times unnervingly, goes all out to provide an answer for. A distant object floats down a wide river; it’s not until it nears the camera (positioned in the water itself) that we realise it’s the body of a murdered girl. Yang Mija (an excellent performance by Yoon Jeong-hee, who came out of retirement to be in the film) is a grandmother in her sixties living in Busan. She’s suffering from the recent onset of Alzheimer’s and the trials of looking after an unruly grandson (who has been implicated in the assault and death of the girl from the opening). She has little money, is on welfare and also looks after an elderly male neighbour. Old age isn’t quiet or content for Mija. Her life is more fraught with tricky decisions than a lady her age deserves. But she’s also fresh to the joys of poetry, having joined a class that she manages to fit into her already hectic existence. Whilst seeking out the answers to the girl’s death, Mija begins to see the world around her in new ways. She slowly begins to fill her notebook up with words and thoughts for her class.
This may all sound overly sentimental, but Poetry is anything but saccharine in its approach to its narrative. Its tone is elegant, simple, frank. The way Chang-dong plays out the central drama of his plot is smartly measured (Poetry is one of the most beautifully paced films I’ve seen in a long time) and, crucially, by the end heart-rending. Everything works to the advantage of the story. We experience in tandem with Mija what she does; we gain insight into her choices, her actions and the particulars of her life. Poetry utilises the tools of filmmaking in beautifully effective ways to achieve this: Hyun Seok Kim’s photography highlights the pleasures and terrors of Mija’s journey with an extraordinary lightness; Hyun Kim’s editing creates sensitive ebb and flow throughout; and Chang-dong’s direction - perhaps the best of any film from last year – contains the right amount of thoughtful, subtle agency. Each and every shot tells us something more, something integral about the story. The whole film is leavened, brought alive most, by Jeong-hee’s bright, delightful performance. Her reaction to the turn of events, and the way she commands attention even with the most minute of gestures, is captivating. Her lilting laugh and delicate manner stayed with me well after I’d left the cinema. Poetry makes good on its title in its final scenes too. It has spent over two hours detailing one woman’s immersion into new ways of seeing the world, but then it shows us its own lessons in poetic perception. This is a sublime film.