Wednesday, August 3, 2011

POETRY / Staff Review by Evan Salazar

The reason Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING is so scary is because the Overlook Hotel is perpetually saturated in light, never allowing the Torrance family to escape the terrors that haunt its walls. The twins don’t hide in dark shadows – they are fully visible. Even when Danny does his best to shut his eyes and wish them away, they stay in full light, their terror un-obscured and completely unhinged. When what scares one the most is partially hidden, the full picture never materializes and one is allowed to not face all of its cruel characteristics; but when one’s fears are in the open, dosed in bright light, the terror is inescapable.

While not a horror film by popular definition, Lee Chang-dong’s newest film, POETRY, operates under very much the same idea of THE SHINING: What is most frightening, awful, and cruel about the world is basked in the South Korean sun for all to see in this film. There are few scenes shot at night, little (if any) use of dramatic shadows, and simple, elegant photography work by cinematographer Kim Hyun-Seok – yet the story explores dark, awful truths about human cruelty, ageing, and loneliness. The darkness creeps in the corner of the frame, haunting each of the characters and the spaces they live in. At certain points, the subtle drama explodes, and one realizes just how palpable and heavy everything preceding the explosion was. But that’s just the thing: all of the heft and bleakness of the film is handled with a deft hand. It quietly crawls into your skin and lays dormant until emotions cannot stay suppressed any longer. The film has a tight, knowing grip on the viewer’s emotional valve. It starts at a quiet hiss, and quickly ratchets up to a flood.

I don’t want to spoil much of the film’s plot. The journey that the character Yang Mija takes is a disquieting, emotional, and finally, enigmatic one. She is a kind older woman, a feeling woman. She also contains reserves of anger, emotional carelessness, and a large pool of sadness. Actress Yoon Jeong-hee carries the whole film, and her face is a prize to film itself. She packs so much into a tiny twitch, a quick smile, the narrowing of her eyes – and this is all only heightened by the circumstances her character finds herself in, by the fact that she may have to lie, that she may have to sacrifice things, or that her health and life might be taking a different path than she so desires. Again, I don’t want to spoil much of the film’s plot, so I am going to refrain from specifics, but at a certain point the plot doesn’t even matter that much – it’s all about the character of Mija, her questions and worries, her strength and also her feelings of hopelessness.

Of course, the film is called POETRY, and there is a lot of depth mined from simply the concept of poems, writing, expressing one’s self. There is a striking moment where Mija’s poetry class is asked to answer what the most beautiful moment in their life was, in hopes of it unlocking poetic inspiration. Some are confident in their answers, speaking of love and family; the most interesting answer to me, however, was one middle aged man’s answer about moving out of a cheap basement after 20 years and finally living in a real apartment. He claims he has had no beautiful moments in his life, but maybe that is the only moment on its way to something resembling beauty. It’s a sad and emotionally bare moment, and it perfectly encapsulates the spirit of poetry. In fact, one can argue that his answer is the most poetic, beating out confessions of love or family or childhood memories. The film explores the realm of poetry with a great deal of care and interest – it is never overly sentimental or sickly sweet, but rather subdued, calm, introspective. And when married with the other components of the film, it shines like a beacon of hope across the bleak reality of human suffering.

POETRY, much like the style of writing it takes its name from, is a fluid and sinuous film. It is completely absorbing and rewards those who ease into its deliberate pace. The film asks you to find the beauty, the heart in the ugly and cold – to discover the way you wish to view the world. The film understands that this may take awhile for one person to discover, and so it takes its time answering its own questions, as well. By its end, POETRY becomes a haunting reverie about losing and then gaining something in return. Human minds can still reach far out and grasp what they want, even when everything else falls in its presence.

POETRY opens Friday, August 5th at The Loft.

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