After the lurid but mostly unexciting The Housemaid, South Korea got another shot at the Palme d’Or Wednesday with competition entry Poetry from Lee Changdong (whose Secret Sunshine was in competition in Cannes three years ago). While it might not be the artistic slam dunk one expects (but certainly doesn’t always get, from the top prize-winner), the film is a graceful melodrama with the feel and texture of an absorbing novel.
At the film’s centre is a witty, poignant performance by veteran Korean actress Yun Junghee, who joins Lesley Manville (Mike Leigh’s Another Year) and Juliette Binoche (Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy) as a probable front-runner for the Best Actress award. Yun plays Mija, a plucky, elegantly dressed woman in her sixties who spends several days attempting to write a poem for her local poetry class while dealing with two serious crises: a diagnosis of Alzheimer, which complicates the task of finding the right words to put on paper, and the news that her teenage grandson, whom she is raising herself, was part of a group of boys that raped a classmate, resulting in her suicide.
Lee’s attentive camera and gently paced but confident storytelling coaxes a plot that verges on precious - a person discovering the freedom of artistic creation - into a surprisingly tough-minded odyssey, in which a woman nearing the end of her life succeeds in reinventing herself under the direst of circumstances. If the film’s narrative arc is a rather predictable one, the director (who also wrote the film) leads us down some intriguing detours.
Mija’s encounters with the people around her - fathers of her grandson’s friends, her paralysed employer, the mother of the dead girl, and various attendees of poetry readings - are fraught with the tension of someone testing her limits for the first time. She’s an original heroine: a curious, intuitive grandma, able to use her sensitivity and a resilience she never knew she possessed to leave her unexpected mark on the world.