Lee Chang-dong is a Korean novelist, screenwriter, filmmaker and even a former Minister of Culture and Tourism. Poetry, his fifth film, is about an ageing woman who must cope with the distress of discovering that her grandson is implicated in a horrific crime, and its fallout.
Sarah Cronin interviewed Lee Chang-dong by email and asked him about the death of poetry, the beauty of small things and the importance of ‘seeing well’.
SC: Where did your inspiration for the story come from? Was it the rape and suicide of the young girl, or the character of this older woman facing dementia?
LCD:It started with a sexual assault case that had actually happened in a small town in South Korea, which was committed by a group of juveniles. But the real case was a bit different from the film; the girl, the victim, didn’t commit suicide. However, this case had penetrated into my mind and did not leave. And although I wanted to talk about this issue through my film, I was not sure about the means. Of course, there would be easy ways that I can think of. For instance, have the victim fight for justice with difficulty, or have a journalist or a police detective, or a third person striving to search for the hidden truth, etc. However, I didn’t want to adopt those conventional ways. This case eventually became the story for my film when I came across the main character, a woman in her 60s wishing to write a poem for the first time in her life, who faces Alzheimer’s disease. To sum up, this story was finally born from a combination of different elements: the sexual assault case, the suicide of a girl, and the lady in her 60s writing a poem.
Why did you choose to build the film around the central theme of poetry?
While I was trying to figure out a way to deal with this sexual assault case in a film, I was travelling in Japan when I happened to watch a TV programme intended for the sleepless tourists in my hotel room one night. Watching the typical landscape visuals with meditation music-type sounds of peaceful rivers, flying birds, fishermen throwing their nets, it suddenly occurred to me that the title of the film dealing with this cruel case should be Poetry. The film character and plot came to my mind at the same time, along with the title. All these things didn’t come through logical thinking but instinctively and intuitively. But perhaps my old questions and thoughts suddenly found their small resolution at that moment. Questions of what? Questions like, 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? The character Mija in the film asks those questions instead of me. She may be old, but she is naive enough to ask them. Like all beginners are naive.
One of the poets that Mija meets says that ‘Poetry deserves to die’ – is there some truth in that? And why do you think film and poetry are dying?
People nowadays do not read or write poetry. Do you see any young people who write poems around you? Students learn poetry as if they are learning archaic words. People would ask back, ‘Can you make a living by writing poetry?’ They’re right. Poetry doesn’t guarantee anything. It doesn’t guarantee any pleasure or desire. It has no value economically. Maybe it exists only in a form of advertisement copy. Poetry is dying. If poetry is an act of pursuing hidden beauty or truth, an act of questioning our lives, it can also be another form of art, it can be cinema. In this regard, cinema is also dying. While some films are massively consumed as ever, other films, films that I’d like to create, films I’d like to see, are becoming more difficult to find. Films that make people observe the world with different eyes, to feel invisible beauty and to question life. Do those films still exist? Do you wish for those films to exist? These are the questions that I want to ask.
What appealed to you the most about Mija’s character, and also Yun Jung-hee? Mija is this very feminine older woman, who also seems very enigmatic. You never explain anything about why her daughter left, or what happened to her husband.
When I first thought of the character Mija I wrote her down as ‘Wearing a hat and a fancy scarf, she looks like a girl going on a picnic’. The description ‘like a girl’ was important in showing her character. She may be an old lady, but she is like a little girl inside. She is innocent and naive, like a child who wonders about everything that the child sees for the first time. A beauty that goes against time, like a dried flower. An unrealistic character who still feels and talks like an immature girl, despite her age. Which are also the characteristics of the actress Yun Jung-hee. I named the character Mija because I couldn’t think of any alternatives. Though the name Mija is old-fashioned and it is not common nowadays, it has the meaning of ‘beauty’ in it. Anyway, Yun Jung-hee’s real name turned out to be Mija. I didn’t think it was coincidence, but fate. Mija’s past life might not have been easy. Maybe she has been abandoned by a man. Maybe her daughter was following in her footsteps. However, I didn’t want to describe their backgrounds directly to the audience. Rather I wanted the audience to feel and understand them through their present.
The poetry teacher stresses that the ‘important thing in life is seeing’ and ‘to see well’. Do you feel the same as a filmmaker – that it’s your duty to see what’s around you, and reveal it on film?
That comment made by the poetry teacher represents my thoughts to some extent. ‘To see well’ is a fundamental aspect in writing poetry or making films. Films show the world on behalf of the audience’s eyes. However, the films that we make, what kind of eyes are they in showing the world to the audience? Some films make us see the world differently, while some make us see only what we want to see. And some films do not let us see anything.
Do you believe that it’s important to always find beauty in small things – the apricot that’s fallen to the ground, for example? Is that something you also try to express in your films?
To discover hidden beauty and meaning in small and trivial things is the fundamental element, not only for film, but also for all art genres. The problem is, beauty doesn’t exist per se. Like the light and shadow, whether it’s visible or not, beauty co-exists with pain, filth, and ugliness. Apricots need to fall down to earth to create a new life. Therefore, art is an irony as itself. As so are our lives.
Your films often feature characters who are disabled – in this case it’s a man who’s had a stroke. Why is his relationship with Mija central to the film?
They are mostly characters with communication barriers, rather than being physically disabled. I always dream of communicating with audiences through my films. So, those characters in my films, in a way, represent the part of me that is not communicated, that longs to communicate. However, the old man character in the film having a fit of apoplexy represents disabled masculinity. That is, the macho man’s sexual desire, which makes him beg to ‘be a man’ for one last time after becoming ill and helpless, despite the money and power that he achieved in the past. And when Mija accepts that desire, she defiles her own body like the dead girl.
It’s very disturbing that the fathers care so little about the gang rape and death of the girl. Is this attitude – pay off the mother, the school, newspapers – common in Korea? Are you trying to make a wider comment on corruption?
I admit that parents in South Korea tend to be overprotective of their children. However, I believe that all societies have similar attitudes to sexual violence, although there are variations. People, especially men, think revealing the problem never helps anyone, even the victims. That is why they do not seem to feel guilty in covering up the problem.
Mija’s poem, ‘Agnes’s Song’, turns out to be a beautiful, poetic suicide note, written from the young girl’s point of view. When you started the script, did you already know that was the form the poem would take? It’s an incredible moment in the film, when the young girl’s voice takes over the narration.
Agnes is the Christian name of the dead girl. Mija is eventually able to write a poem after she accepted the pain of Agnes as her own, the life of the girl as her own. Therefore, the one poem that Mija leaves in the world is the one that she wrote on behalf of the girl. Mija speaks out with the voice that the girl would have wanted to leave behind. The two become one through the poem. When Mija’s voice changes into Hee-jin’s, the audience can feel that the destinies of Mija and the girl are overlapping, and that the two characters are united as one.
Why did you choose to close the film with a shot of Agnes turning to look at the camera, rather than a scene with Mija, or Wook? It’s a very powerful, but also very open-ended conclusion.
I wanted the audience to face her directly at the end of the film. I wanted people to remember her faintly smiling face and expression directly looking into the camera, and to accept her emotions along with Mija’s poem. Mija has gone after she has finished writing the poem. I wanted to make people feel Mija’s absence while listening to her poem. Where did she go? I left the answer up to the audience. I pictured the film to have much space, as poems do. Blanks that the audiences could fill in. In that sense it can be seen as an ‘open’ film. The conclusion will be in the audience’s mind.
Interview by Sarah Cronin