HOW TO SEE: Lee Chang-dong’s Search for Darkness in Poetry
"…why do I write novels and make films; and to what extent my writings or films can affect the world. Art is a pursuit for beauty and there is the question of how it is related to the filth and vice of the world. The question is similar to what Theodor Adorno had asked: is it possible to write lyric poetry after Auschwitz?"--Lee Chang-dong1
When Mi-ja arrives at her first poetry lesson at the cultural centre, the instructor explains, "To write poetry, you must see well." He holds an apple and states that none of the students have ever actually seen an apple. They must hold it up and truly examine the way the light falls on this object to understand true beauty. In short vignettes throughout the film, we see these students taking turns sitting in front of the class, each asked to recount their "best memory" as an exercise for exploring beauty. So, why is it that every one of their joyful stories is coupled with pain? Why do they cry reliving these memories in front of the class? Why is a film about a gang rape called Poetry?
With this fifth film in a body of complex directorial works, Lee Chang-dong seems to suggest that to really see well, one must look for the ugliness in everyday life. In this vein, Poetry is all about people who are not just oblivious to the darkness around them but often actively ignoring it. From her very introduction in a hospital waiting room, Mi-ja seems to be fighting the malaise of the people around her, with a delightful ringtone and a happy-go-lucky attitude that comes through even when she's describing what might be the symptoms of a creeping dementia to the doctor. At the poetry readings she attends, she criticises an off-duty police officer for embellishing his recitals with dirty jokes in an environment that she believes should be dedicated to seeking beauty. The first time we even get a hint that there might be cracks in this facade is when we meet her grandson, Jong-wook, curled up on his bed. After failing to cajole him into consciousness, Mi-ja escapes to the bathroom in sudden distress, struggling to take her clothes off, leaving them outside the door before disappearing inside. It's only when we see her later, at her job as a caretaker for an elderly stroke victim, that we understand what she's doing every time she runs to the bathroom like this. Alone in there, she undresses, steps under the shower and weeps until she's drenched in the water.
This is how she releases her anguish in a life where ugliness goes unacknowledged and it becomes part of the language of how Mi-ja engages with the dark truth about her grandson's crimes. The fact that he may have been part of a group of teenage boys who raped a female schoolmate, leading her to suicide, reveals itself over what seems to be an innocuous meeting among the fathers of the other perpetrators. It's only after this meeting that she begins to really look at Jong-wook. From the back of the kitchen, she quietly watches him eat as he loses himself in whatever's on TV, for the first time seeing the ugliness in what she had thought was the innocent oafishness of her kin. Still, she doesn't confront it, just observes it from afar. It is only when she makes a visit to the bridge where his victim, Hee-jin, took her own life, that something in her changes. She sits by the river, awaiting poetic inspiration, staring at a piece of pure, blank white paper, then it starts to rain. She stays motionless on that riverside, becoming drenched as the world weeps upon her but, this time, she isn't crying. Mi-ja makes her way back to town to see the elderly man who made a sexual advance at her last time she was washing him, desperate for pleasure at the end of his life. And even though she had quit working for him as a result, in an act of empathy and indignity, she obliges his desires by undressing and getting on top of him in the bathtub. It's as if she can finally see the beauty that is intertwined with the ugliness and the nature of his initial request. Her grandson may have raped a schoolmate but he also still cheerfully plays with children on the street. By contrasting that image with our knowledge of his earlier actions, Lee provides insight into the immense melancholy experienced by Mi-ja in this moment.
Unfortunately, Mi-ja seems to be the only one to accept the place of shadow as a symptom of light. At one point, she carefully positions a photo of Hee-jin that she stole from her funeral service on their dining table, to see how Jong-wook will react. Instead of saying anything, he demurs, staring at her in quiet shock, before turning on the TV and getting lost in another distraction. Everyone but Mi-ja is dedicated to ignoring the darkness around them, from the shop clerk who doesn't seem to hear Mi-ja's story about her encounter with Hee-jin's mother at the hospital, to the fathers who are nonchalantly discussing their sons' crime over beers. In the end, Mi-ja is the only person in her class who manages to write a poem because she is the only one out of all of them who has learnt how to see. The more ugliness Mi-ja finds amongst the beauty of the world, the closer she seems to get to Hee-jin, who takes over at the end, reciting the second half of the final poem. It's only after the poem is finished that we see Hee-jin in person for the first time. At the beginning of the movie, we saw her lifeless body floating face down in the river, but now, she finally confronts us – not only alive in this moment but looking directly into the camera, almost smiling. Over the course of the movie, we've seen Hee-jin's story manifest itself within Mi-ja's own journey toward the shadows and, when we finally see her staring back at us in this shot, it is as if Lee is saying that finding the darkness within the beauty is nothing short of resurrection.
When Mi-ja finally shares her own "best memory" in front of the class, she remembers her sister. Through tears, she says: "In the living room, the red curtains are drawn closed, but through a slight opening, the sunlight is seeping in. Now I can see half of my sister's face. The other half is hidden in shadows."