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Where does “Poetry” rank among Lee Chang-dong’s films?

Yoon Jeong-hee in Poetry
Yoon Jeong-hee in Poetry

With Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry getting its UK theatrical release on Friday1, it’s worth taking a moment to think about where it ranks among his filmography. His first film, Green Fish (1997), is also probably his least-known, and tackles Korea’s urbanisation. By contrast, Peppermint Candy (2000), which addresses Korea’s troubled modern history, ranks highly among many people’s list of the most notable Korean films of all time. Oasis (2002), which looks at society’s attitude to the disadvantaged, was again very highly regarded – before Lee took a break from the business to become the Culture minister for Roh Moo-hyun. The comeback film, Secret Sunshine (2007) turned its attention to evangelical Christianity, and caught everyone’s attention at Cannes, winning top honours for actress Jeon Do-yeon. Poetry (2010) was therefore eagerly awaited. It coincided with another film featuring a more mature female lead – Bong Joon-ho’s Mother. Poetry won best screenplay at Cannes, and brought its veteran star Yoon Jeong-hee back into the limelight, where she followed Jeon Do-yeon in winning the French cultural honour of Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres.

But while Lee’s earlier films all seem to have a specific target in their sights, Poetry is a much quieter and more meditative film. For me, it’s also more difficult to wrap your arms around. According to one critic, it’s Lee’s “most thematically complete” film2. It has certainly got a lot of themes running through it – dementia, moral dilemmas about how to deal with underage rapists, and of course the transcendent theme of the need to examine the world, to see it afresh, in order to get poetic inspiration. But understanding what Lee is actually trying to say is more difficult in this film than in his earlier ones.

Conventionally the world portrayed in a Lee Chang-dong film is profoundly depressing yet paradoxically the resulting movie is always extremely rewarding. Maybe the reason that I find his most recent movie his most elusive is that thus far I’ve only seen it on DVD. Now I’ve got the chance to watch it in a theatre I’m hoping I’ll understand it better.

The most thoughtful review I’ve found of the movie is at the New York Times. Can anyone recommend another one that casts light on what Director Lee is getting at?

  1. Its UK premier was at the BFI London Film Festival in 2009 []
  2. Lee Marshall in Screen Daily, quoted at MUBI []

(automatically generated) Read LKL’s review of this event here.

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