When Mija, played with ornate naturalism by veteran actress Yun Jung-hee in her first role in 15 years, is informed that her grandson was involved in a gang rape that led to the suicide of a high-school girl her expression shows little visible change. She proceeds with her daily routine, attending to her daycare service for an elderly disabled man, and continuing to feed the teenage boy as part of her maternal obligations. Hints of forgetfulness lead to her discovery that she has developed Alzheimer’s, yet not even this realisation jolts her into dismay as she carries on with her life as if little had changed. Nevertheless, underneath her skin panic is freezing her blood and her heart is sinking in dread; rather than descending into sentiment, director Lee Chang-dong chooses to depict trauma by slowly filtering the emotions in a process that denies grandiose gestures.
In an attempt to keep hold of her memories perhaps, Mija begins to attend local poetry lessons and readings where she is advised to observe the small details of everyday life for artistic inspiration. No matter how hard she tries, however, she seems to be incapable of finding words for her feelings and struggles to put her thoughts into verse. Instead, Lee’s camera takes on the task, its eye surveying the minute subtleties of Mija’s personality. The plot progresses at a leisurely pace, often pushed into the background in favour of mood as if the film shared its protagonist’s absent-mindedness; as in many good poems, the storyline is hidden behind the language and the feelings it elicits.
Together with Mija, the film searches for the beauty of life to translate into poetry, yet struggles to direct its lens away from the indecent behaviour that surrounds and continually interrupts its quest. The parents of the teenage rapists and the school are far more concerned about the future of their children and their soiled reputation, acting on the assumption that money will solve such matters. Mija’s grandson and friends show no remorse about the heinous act they committed, seemingly unaware of the implications, and they don’t suffer any consequences. In such an abhorrent world, it is difficult for Mija to discover pure moments of creativity in which to scribble onto her white pad, which remains painfully empty throughout the film. Only spots of rain pen the bare pages in beautiful patterns that convey the melancholy that pervades the film.
Nonetheless, Mija is not as innocent or clueless as her distrait conduct might at first suggest. Like a poem, Yun Jung-hee’s performance allows us to read Mija’s gestures from varying angles, encouraging a multitude of interpretations in a role Lee wrote specifically for her. Her sexual favour for her disabled client seem a selfless act of compassion at first, yet the tone subtly changes when it is suggested that this is to be used as blackmail to cover the cost of silencing the dead girl’s family. Most of Mija’s actions seem to have little logical motivation and remain unexplained, and we are left to figure out to what extent her behaviour is impulsive and whether her dreamy demeanour is simply a strategy to veil her inner turmoil. Her visits to spaces the young girl once occupied, places where she was raped and where she decided to die, suggest the death has had a substantial effect and haunts Mija. It is a memory she is unable to erase from her steadily deteriorating mind. In effect, Mija’s failures as a poet are more than compensated for by Lee’s camera and its ability to capture the complexities of its subject. Her quiet gestures, gentle gaze and tender pose transform themselves into stanzas as they rhyme with Lee’s cinema.