In Perfect Disharmony
Ela Bittencourt on Poetry

In a haunting late scene in Lee Chang-dong’s sublimely understated Poetry, Yang Mi-ja (Yun Jeong-hie), a 66-year-old woman in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, is waiting at an empty karaoke bar. Mi-ja’s broke, and her reason for the visit is heartbreaking. Her grandson, Jong-wook (Lee Da-wit), a high-school senior who’s been living with her while his mother works in a distant town, has admitted to repeatedly raping Agnes, a young girl from his class, who then committed suicide. Jong-wook acted in consort with other male classmates. Mi-ja has been previously summoned to a meeting with the other boys’ fathers, who are gathering money to pay off Agnes’s grieving mother to avoid a scandal. The karaoke bar’s owner is one of those fathers trying to protect their sons’ futures, and Mi-ja hopes to ask him for a loan.

The scene, however, doesn’t find Mi-ja idly sitting around. Instead, she’s broken out into a melancholy love song. The bar’s multicolored lights flicker on her pale skin. Meanwhile, in the background, a poster of a painting by Pierre Auguste-Renoir, Portrait of Mademoiselle Irene Cahen d'Anvers (1880), shows an eight-year-old girl, equally pale and delicate, her red hair cascading down her shoulders in fiery flickers, its intensity matched by the iridescent whiteness of her dress.

Watching the mature Mi-ja, whose mild manner as well as her first slippages of memory lend her face a slightly lost, dreamy expression, and then the Renoir girl, I’m instantly reminded that elsewhere in the film Mi-ja boasts of the heads she’s turned. She has many stories to tell, she confesses. And though she never shares a single piquant detail, we believe her. She is beautiful, and in Yun’s remarkable performance, she’s also vulnerable and fragile, like a butterfly, or the young girl in the poster.

If I’m obsessed with this karaoke scene, it’s because Lee finds a way for a humble object—for all we know, not even a particularly skilled reproduction of an Impressionist painting—to inform his entire film. So much so that I’m immediately reminded that an art movement that today might seem like quaint portraits of young girls with their lapdogs or lilies adorning the walls of touristy museums, was once a revolution that paved the way for modern art.

If I were to try and put my finger on what it is precisely that Lee Chang-dong channels in this scene, I’d say that it’s the Impressionists’ desire for painting to reflect real life in all its permutations. In art, this translated into a refusal to harmonize, to smooth out the harsh contrasts and brusque changes in light and color temperatures that jar and tantalize the eye. Color, not as a stable value, but as a property that contains other colors, dances, like the lights on Mi-ja’s skin.

On a basic level, even Mi-ja’s wardrobe is Impressionist, and it doesn’t take long to spot in her gauzy skirts and veils the hint of Renoirian shimmer. But while there are certainly visual parallels between Poetry’s costume design and cinematography and the Impressionist method, Lee reaches deeper into the movement’s ethos, and in so doing, weds an artistic principle to a universal insight on life’s incurable, agonistic beauty.

Mi-ja herself is not a painter, but she wants to be a poet. In the course of gradually, painfully realizing that her grandson is guilty, and might get away with it, without reckoning with the moral implications of his crime, Mi-ja must resolve—often in small, very real terms—what it means to write poetry that draws directly on her experience. She too must learn to refuse to harmonize.

This doesn’t come naturally to Mi-ja. Her voice is faint and soft, and she dotes on her grandson too much. In one scene, shortly after discovering his crime, she implores him to eat, because nothing pleases her more than seeing him eat. And yet, his emotional stuntedness slowly sinks in for her. One day, Mi-ja attends a mass dedicated to Agnes. She swipes the girl’s portrait, and places it on her kitchen table. The next day, she watches, anguished, as her grandson barely registers its presence and turns on television. And so begins Mi-ja’s attempt to reconcile her protective love for Jong-wook with her sense of justice.

Like any dedicated artist, Mi-ja lavishes time on seeing things more keenly. She’s signed up for a poetry class, and her teacher urges her to look at things anew—she admires an apple; she picks up a peach from the ground. Lee nestles these small discoveries within narrative arcs, so that Mi-ja’s maturing as a poet always springs from her agony. For example, the scene in which Mi-ja stoops to ponder a fallen peach and reflects on its premature ripeness (she says the peach “throws itself to the ground,” is “trampled for its next life”) is also when she’s visiting Agnes’s grieving mom. Mi-ja has been sent by the men to “talk woman to woman,” and to persuade Agnes’s mother to settle out of court. But Mi-ja is so taken with the countryside that she seems reluctant to broach the topic. Only once she wanders off, somewhat bewildered, does she suddenly turn and realize why she’s come. And yet, despite forgetting the purpose of the moment, she has intuited the symbolism of the fruit’s mortality.

Over the course of her writing apprenticeship, Mi-ja unearths subjectivity as the motor behind creation. The camellias that Mi-ja admires in her doctor’s office become “flowers of pain.” Mi-ja’s employer belittles her by comparing her to a bird, saying that she always goes, “Chirp, chirp, chirp, chirp.” Yet in another scene, as Mi-ja jots down in her notebook, “Birds singing. What are they singing?” Lee mutes the birds and instead introduces the rhythmic pounce of boys kicking a soccer ball on a nearby field—another tormenting note inflecting Mi-ja’s poetic vocabulary.

Poetry also helps Mi-ja hold on to the present, in an echo of the Impressionist mantra to make palpable not only light’s but also time’s permutations. In this sense, Mi-ja’s flowing skirts and tops also create a continuous sense of her passing through, a material flutter of time.

Nothing is random in Poetry, and it seems meaningful that the Renoir painting is a poster—a sign of humility. A poster is only a copy, a stand-in. It is and yet it isn’t Art—very much like Mi-ja’s burgeoning poetic sensibility. Mi-ja does not set out to be a trifling poet, though in one early scene, she jokes, “I’m quite a poet. I like flowers and say odd things.” Her naïve judgment is then echoed by the fathers of her grandson’s friends who deem her a “little quaint lady.” Later, it turns out that Mi-ja was only repeating her daughter’s words. There’s a gap between those who see her as merely quaint and useless and her own perspective: her desire to forge a unique style. Lee picks on this motif in another scene, with his characteristic wry humor: Mi-ja and her doctor discuss Alzheimer’s and the camellias’ “pain,” and the doctor then adds, a bit blasé, “They’re fake.” And yet what matters, Lee seems to be saying, is ultimately not their artificiality, but the strength of the desire to connect to the sensibility that made the original possible.

Like the Impressionists, Mi-ja must discover life’s Baudelairean side—brutal yet sensuous. After she joins poetry readings at a local café, she meets the retired cop and poet Park Sang-tae (the gloriously rambunctious Kim Jong-joo). Sang-tae entertains the literary crowd by telling dirty jokes thinly veiled as poems. Here’s finally the Impressionism capturing not the wealthy merchants’ daughters but rather rowdy dancers at Parisian boathouses, their bodies crushed against each other in the summer heat, sweaty and flushed with lust. This more fleshy poetry resurfaces when Mi-ja, who’s been taking care of a paralyzed pensioner to make extra cash, decides to take him up on his wish to have sex. After rebuffing his Viagra-spiked approaches and quitting her job, she returns, and the two enjoy a foamy bath. The moment represents her discovery of the messy richness of the everyday, and her increasing willingness to push past judgment. The same empathic, all-embracing acceptance allows her to be loving and gentle with her grandson even as, in her desperation to save him, she turns him in to the police.

In Poetry’s finale, Lee finds a distinctly Zen calm. In the goosebump-inducing last scene, Mi-ja visits the bridge from which Agnes jumped; she peers down, her hat flies off, and she looks up startled, but then freezes in the wind’s caress—a fluttery, in-the-moment, impressionistic image. Mi-ja then walks down to the embankment; the rain starts, and she lets it soak through her. In this moment, the vehemence of the river stream, the gush and noise of its current, counterbalance the delicate rain droplets on the page in Mi-ja’s notebook. The tempest and the lull, the joie-de-vivre and undying sadness, life’s cruelty and compassion—it’s all there. Mi-ja’s first poem, “Agnes’s Song,” is born.