327) Green Fish (1997) Dir: Chang-Dong Lee Date Released: No Ideer Date Seen: August 17, 2011 Rating: 3.25/5
328) Secret Sunshine (2007) Dir: Chang-Dong Lee Date Released: December 22, 2011 Date Seen: August 17, 2011 Rating: 4/5
To the person or persons at IFC that decided to release Secret Sunshine three days before Christmas: I salute you and your perverse sense of ironic humor!
I wrote a piece for Fandor about Poetry, one that took a lil time to get just right. As in, I wrote several different pieces: that's how drastically the focus of the original piece changed. Not a bad thing, necessarily, but the piece in question is a very different animal now. So after the jump, I've pasted a piece about Poetry and its place in Chang-Dong Lee's oeuvre. Enjoy?
It’s fitting that Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-dong should win the prize for Best Screenplay at Cannes for Poetry. Poetry’s scenario is a more refined expression of Lee’s interest in the way people are inter-dependent on each other and how that prevents them from ever really being happy. Everyone wants something they can’t have from each other and they want it in their own time. This isn’t necessarily as unreasonable a request as it sounds as we see in Poetry but it is necessarily an impossible one. Yang Mija is an older woman newly diagnosed with dementia. In spite of her disability, Mija still works to support her unresponsive grand-son Wook not because she wants to but because she has obligations to fulfill to Wook. Love necessarily entails obligations in Lee’s films but it doesn’t necessarily require reciprocity.
The great age difference between Wook, now a teenager, and Mija only serves to re-enforce Mija’s powerlessness when it comes to making Wook do what he should. He invites friends over late at night and even wanders off without telling her where he’s going or when he’s coming back. Mija can’t deal with not being able to control Wook. Her impotence culminates when she tries to find out what Wook’s been doing on his computer but can’t do it, perhaps because she can’t remember how to operate a computer or just because the machine won’t respond to her commands. Either way, she’s totally helpless and has to forcibly turn the computer off just to regain her composure.
Wook’s erratic behavior isn’t however just a symptom of his age. He’s involved in a plot revolving around a girl whose body was recently discovered in a nearby river. The image of the tide flowing and then soon after that the girl’s body floating by is very stirring. It shows that a change was coming at some point or another for Lee’s characters. Change is irrevocable like the direction of the river in Poetry or the image of the train in both Green Fish and Peppermint Candy.
Time is normally linear and flat in Lee’s film. Characters can only go in one direction. In Peppermint Candy, we see a man’s life as a series of events in reverse. Yongho, the film’s protagonist, breaks down at the end of the film as in anticipation of what he will do later. Yongho can’t stop what he’ll eventually do because these events, as they’re presented to us, have already happened. But if that’s true and our lives are largely predetermined, what’s the point of living? Why in Poetry does Mija learn to write poems or to create art at all if they can’t affect substantial change in her life?
The fact that Mija even gets to consider this question shows just how much more complicated her dilemma is by comparison to Lee’s other dramas. If people really can’t change their lives, as Lee’s films suggest, what can they do? If Poetry is any indication, they can clean up after themselves as best as they can and make sure that they’ve done all they could to accomplish something, even if that something outlasts them. For instance, in Green Fish, Makdong, an aimless young man that becomes a wannabe thug, dreams of opening a restaurant with his family. He wants this more than anything so that he can return to the idyllic days of his memory when he and his family were together. That dream of owning a restaurant is eventually realized but only after Makdong commits a crime that he winds up dying for. In Makdong’s head, it’s his responsibility to commit a crime in order to solve the problems of his boss, a gangster that’s being harassed by a ruthless rival mob boss. But ultimately, Makdong takes his boss’s problems into his own hands in order to tie up the loose ends in both his life and his boss’s life.
In Poetry, Mija also cleans up after people but she does it as a way of taking care of them. She is the caretaker of an elderly neighbor and of her grand son. Cleaning up after people is a necessary part of both of these jobs but here, it’s not a problem to be dealt with, but rather an obligation. The difference can be seen in the way that Mija deals with knowing that Wook had raped the dead teen girl and is not remorseful. She meets with the fathers of the other boys that, along with Wook, were responsible for raping the dead girl. Like their sons, these men are not ashamed of this act. They are not as overwhelmed as Mija is. Their solution to the problem at hand is to make it go away by paying the dead girl’s family off. Mija can’t do that: she’s so overwhelmed with emotion that she steals the dead girl’s portrait from a church holding a service in her honor. Mija does not want to let this shocking event be forgotten. This is partly because of her memory loss but also because she feels Wook has to accept responsibility for his actions. That ethical imperative is more important to Mija than maintaining Wook’s well-being.
This is exciting because, for the most part, Lee’s characters don’t really get to consider how to make that kinds of decision with any real perspective. There’s always some element of ultimate futility to their actions that prevents them from affecting any significant change. For example, Secret Sunshine, Shin-ae Lee, a widowed single mother, tries to pay kidnappers the ransom for her son. But when Lee asks to hear her son on the phone before delivering the requested money, she never gets to hear him. From that moment on, the viewer can’t help but feel that the boy was already dead once the ransom was first requested. Poetry is different however in that Mija has the opportunity to explore her surroundings, reflect and determine what she can do.
Poetry is structured like a detective story in that way except there’s no real pressure to Mija’s meandering investigation. Unlike a traditional detective, Mija isn’t looking for clues about what happened to the girl that Wook raped. Instead, she wants to know what’s happened since the rape. For every scene of her directly interrogating or taking care of her two charges, her neighbor and her grandson, there’s two or three other scenes of Mija performing her own inquisitive search around the neighborhood. So much of Poetry is consequently an exploration of the world outside of Mija’s domestic sphere of influences that eventually, hher neighbor’s home and her home don’t seem as familiar as they used to.
The concept of being responsible for a loved one, especially being responsible for someone when you’re as old as Mija is, is fascinating. It shows you that Lee’s characters can do something with the limited agency they have, even if that something is tidy things up so that they end as best they can. Events don’t necessarily end well for Wook but they do end on Mija’s terms. That is, as Mija learns by taking a class in writing poetry, the power use of art in the film. It has the ability to shape life’s events and give them new meaning. Through reflection and interrogation of events, Mija comes to better understand how to see things around her. This makes her a better poet because it makes her more aware of her surroundings. Which isn’t the same thing as being in control of one’s life, just being aware of the extent of how much control one has. It’s a powerful, if characteristically bleak, sentiment from Lee and a testament to why Poetry is his most advanced melodrama yet.