The twenty best films of the decade were determined by polling all the major and continuing contributors to Reverse Shot in the publication's history.
Kelley Dong on Poetry
Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry (2010) opens in a small town, where by the river and between bushes of tall grass, small children dig for rocks in the dirt. One boy notices a bulky object—the body of a middle-school girl—carried by the water. The camera moves closer into the downturned head as the event expands from a local to a global rupture. The word Poetry only then fades into view, when all pastoral romance subsides. The scene that follows depicts a news broadcast of a Palestinian mother, mourning the death of her son. Seated in a hospital waiting room, Mi-ja (Yoon Jeong-hee), a 66-year-old woman diagnosed with early-stage Alzheimer’s, watches the television and lets out a sigh, startling the others seated beside her.
Mi-ja has forgotten the muscle memory of staying quiet. To the dismay of the doctor, she blurts out the wrong words and laughs without embarrassment. Day by day, her memory loss strips old relics of all meaning. She enrolls in a poetry writing class at the local community center, and the blank pages become a means by which she produces new definitions. Others see her artistic pursuits as a sign that she has truly lost grasp of reality. The Korean word for poetry, shi, is so phonetically short, Mi-ja finds herself saying it again and again to those who ask. Poetry, poetry, poetry! Onlookers confuse the word, when spoken from Mi-ja’s mouth, for the end or start of another word. Their bafflement regarding the aging amateur poet, and the confusion of deviance for insanity, only proves the extent to which they are imprisoned within an oppressive infrastructure of normalcy. Poetry positions Mi-ja as the artist who must intervene, a plain task that begins with the secret scrawls in her notebook.
The genre of the film, so to speak, is not naturalism but an imitation thereof. Strung together by conversations without cadence, and shot with an unbridled camera, the film is made up of small scenes, each spilling into the next. The repetition and accumulation of these culminates in a grand gesture, revealing the strings above the stage—not of God, but of history. Lee Chang-dong’s films are rooted in the irony that realism is not real; they convey an uncanniness that overwhelms his mundane townscapes. For his subjects, individualist fictions override sociopolitical consciousness. In Burning (2018), Lee’s final film of this past decade, a working-class aspiring writer, Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), chases after a crush, Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), with only the compass of enraged entitlement. He viciously hates the woman’s promiscuity and her rich boyfriend Ben (Steven Yeun). Convinced that only he can save her, Jong-su plots—and it is a plot, as Lee implies it could be a delusional tall tale in his head—to kill Ben.
Burning exponentially slows as this man’s ego abruptly expands. His bloodthirsty scheme is a futile venture, partly because the murder of a wealthy man will not end a poor man’s poverty, but especially because Jong-su assumes his manhood is a precious given to be protected, and not the manufactured product of a militarist, patriarchal government and capitalist economy. But even as his high fades, he is too scared to come down. When Jong-su’s knife pierces through Ben’s body, a sharp silence penetrates the fog. He blinks, suddenly shivering in a cold universe where nothing has changed in the nice guy’s favor. This is Jong-su’s unfinished manuscript, a fantasy of freedom through masculinism. What separates Poetry from Burning is that though both Mi-ja and Jong-su are writers, Mi-ja possesses both a love for the craft and a love of the world, and these are non-transactional affections expectant of nothing in return. The merging of the two into an artistic practice is what enables her revelation that we do not live in a world of givens.
Mi-ja’s poetry teacher instructs the class to write one poem by the end of the month. But poems cannot be brought forth by will, he says. Instead, one must look at objects (for example, the teacher suggests, an apple) and feel, understand, then hope for inspiration to arrive. In her kitchen, Mi-ja holds an apple up to the light of a lamp and admires its surface. Her grandson Jong-wook (Lee David) then enters the room. His disruption overrides poetic revelation with the role and responsibilities of a grandmother. Fruit is not to be admired; it must be cut into little slices and offered to the boy, nicknamed Wook, whom she refers to as the “master of the house.” Like a sponge, he absorbs her sacrifice and servitude without reciprocation. The slam of his bedroom door concludes the couplet.
Blink and you may miss it: a medium shot of Mi-ja, filmed from across the table as she sees her grandson enter his room, cuts to a close-up of the apple from behind the table. This crossing of the 180-degree line, a slight maneuver repeated throughout, forces a reconsideration of the object from another perspective. You cannot see anew, Poetry suggests, without crossing the line. In this lies a principle that pushes poetry from an inner feeling to direct action. Art transforms sincerity—as in the enthusiastic but passive looking on—to integrity, which surpasses the former with the conviction to actually interfere with and change the stasis of life. The commitment and risk involved in the latter brings us to the central argument of the film, that true art compels acts of justice, and that true acts of justice inspire artistic creation.
In her diary, the dead girl, Agnes, has accused Wook and his five friends of gang rape, which confirms her death as a suicide. Fearing the worst for their sons’ futures should the scandal reach the local press, their fathers (with the assistance of local police and the school principal) meet in a restaurant and arrange to gather hush money for the girl’s grieving mother. Mi-ja, who works part-time as a nurse for a wealthy elderly man, is asked to contribute. But as the men’s fraternizing continues, she turns away from their raised beer glasses and exits before the food arrives. They later see her outside through the large rectangular window, alarmed by her audacity to enter a different frame.
The parallel procedures of writing a poem and procuring a bribery begin as separate lines of a linear rhyme scheme (ABAB), then entangle into a single knot as A and B cross-pollinate. Following her teacher’s advice to take notes on anything that catches her eye, Mi-ja develops a raw perceptivity that assesses all appearances as symbols, whether a flower as red as blood found outside the men’s meeting, or the photograph of Agnes displayed in the lobby of the church that hosts the girl’s requiem mass. Struck by sorrow, Mi-ja brings the picture to eye level, and the encounter compels her to take the photograph home—a portrait of a girl betrayed and buried. The act of recognition returns us to a scene in Lee Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine (2007), when Shin-ae (Jeon Do-yeon), the mother of a murdered child, drives by an alley and sees the murderer’s daughter. When she also sees that a man is beating the girl, she stops the car and stares out the window. But unable to bear the feeling of identification, Shin-ae drives home before seeing turns to sympathy. Mi-ja, on the other hand, cannot turn away.
Lee’s Poetry places those searching glances between women within a larger context of misogyny as an intergenerational inheritance, wherein complicity is a habit of everyday life. Mi-ja may have already lost the words for “electricity” and “wallet,” but her stiffening shoulders indicate that she still remembers, and still experiences, what it is like to live as an object. After hours of bathing and dressing the old man, she returns home and notices Wook lazing in front of the television. A rare spark of resentment flashes in her eyes. In her grandson, Mi-ja sees the group of fathers who callously discuss the cover-up of a rape over takeout food; she sees the old man whom she bathes as he leers and grabs at her.
With delicate precision, Lee surveys the differences between the men and women’s unembellished responses to Agnes’s death. The boys and fathers move in groups that enable and encourage one another and thereby consolidate local power over the public sphere. Together, they play video games and drink beers. This execution of patriarchal violence in turn isolates young girls like Agnes. And for Mi-ja and Agnes’s mother, to be a woman also affects one’s financial mobility. The fathers argue that because Agnes’s mother is already a widow, she will have no choice but to accept their bribe and remain silent. Meanwhile, unable to afford the five million won requested of her, Mi-ja asks for a job at one father’s karaoke bar; he turns her away because she is not young enough. The only viable option available within Mi-ja’s reach, then, is to give in to her employer’s sexual advances in exchange for money.
Through it all, poetry calls out to Mi-ja, drawing out the rupture of a long-repressed devastation. The film’s central crisis is interjected with recurring scenes of a class activity requiring each poetry student to share the most beautiful moments of their lives. Seated beneath a shadow, Mi-ja describes her earliest memory, one easier to recall than any object of the present. She is a toddler, waddling towards her older sister and thinking to herself, “I am really pretty.” Suddenly struck, Mi-ja bursts into tears at the sight of the space between her fumbling steps and her sister’s embrace, an affirmation without assumption. There are no rough drafts or outlines of Mi-ja’s poem, only fragments of ideas, but even these descriptive texts soon evolve in form as the question of doing what is right becomes more urgent than doing what is asked, as ethics supersede culture. Observations about flowers and birds are replaced by raindrops (or, as Lee implies, teardrops) flooding the lined paper of a notebook, and a soft gasp is emitted when her hat is carried by the wind from the bridge and into the water. A call from Agnes, piercing through. This is not the mere loss of memory, but the simplification of knowledge—all of the names and details of tiny moments—into universal ideas, reduced from their specifics.
Even the technical questions that Mi-ja once asked about poetry, like when or how to write, dissipate. Instead, she redirects her questioning towards the world, hungry to know what must be done without fearing the words that escape her. There is no single narrative turning point in the picture, but rather an evolution of the mind as it mulls over the machinery of its surroundings. Not only does Mi-ja sternly think through every bite of an apricot or every word in a conversation with a smiling mother—she also then produces an irreversible choice at the culmination of these thoughts. That choice commences with a pizza shared between grandmother and grandson, and ends with the entrance of two detectives who take Wook into custody. Later that night, Mi-ja cannot put her pen down because, finally, the once withheld words overflow.
It is the last time that we see Mi-ja, as she soon disappears without a trace. In her wake, she leaves a bouquet of flowers and a poem on her teacher’s podium. The poem is entitled “Agnes’ Song,” a love letter and a good-bye from Agnes and Mi-ja to one another and to a world that did not share their love. “Can I convey / the confession I dared not make?” Mi-ja asks in voiceover. Children hula-hoop in the streets, students listen to a lecture in a classroom, as the sun sets and life continues. Most significant among these is a shot of Agnes’s dog as it leaps toward a handheld camera, which suddenly reverses as Agnes (carrying on the voiceover for the poem’s second part) declares, “Here I pray / that nobody shall cry.” The movement harkens back to the Lumière brothers’ 1895 Demolition of a Wall, in which a wall is taken apart and then, through a reverse motion, becomes whole. That film heralded cinema’s access to unprecedented temporal and spatial dimensions, and Poetry’s echo of the shot proposes that cinema itself rejects the finitude of despair. This then continues into the breaking of the fourth wall in Lee’s final shot. We see Agnes leaning over the bridge to look at the water below. But sensing a presence, she turns to face the camera, then smiles. Lee cuts to the water as seen in the film’s opening, but this time there is no body.
Like the protagonist at the end of Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry (1997), Lee turns away from a mortal death and towards a new and infinite timeline brought forth by art. And if art is what hears and responds to Mi-ja and Agnes’s prayer, it can be said then that it is also the third subject of the poem, the love of their life: “I hope you know how deeply I loved you...how my heart fluttered at hearing your faint song.”