Poetry, Lee Chang-dong, 139 mins (12A)

In a novel for the screen, a woman's luck goes from bad to verse

It's a principle of the hard-nosed movie business that it should be possible to sum up any film in an audience-grabbing pitch of 25 words or less.

Try this capsule of South Korean drama Poetry. An elderly woman, worried about her grandson and facing the onset of Alzheimer's, finds solace in attending poetry classes. There you have the new feature by acclaimed writer-director Lee Chang-dong – but I suspect that description hasn't made you think this film might be a rip-roaring alternative to the last Harry Potter.

The fact is, some films barely bear describing, certainly not in capsule form. To adequately evoke a film this subtle and adult, you'd probably have to write it up as a novel. And a novel is what Poetry most resembles. South Korean cinema may be notorious for cultivating extremity, as in the films of revenge specialist Park Chan-wook (Oldboy). But it also has a less sensational rep for nuanced psychological realism, which is Lee Chang-dong's forte – though there's more than a dash of emotional cruelty under Poetry's calm surface. That's evident in the opening: images of a flowing river, with children playing on its banks, before a corpse bobs into view.

We don't find out for a while what's happened to the dead girl – first we meet Yang Mija (Yun Jung-hee), an elderly woman visiting the doctor because she's started to forget words. Soon after, we learn that the girl killed herself because of events at her school – and that Mija's chronically sullen teenage grandson Wook (Lee David) – is one of the boys who drove her to it. Mija is enlisted into a conspiracy of parents who plan to pay hush money to the girl's mother.

But Mija is increasingly preoccupied by the poetry class she's joined. She'll suddenly wander off to contemplate an apricot, or baffle neighbours by gazing up into a tree – "to listen to its thought". All this could be horribly whimsical – and the film certainly plays on the precious tendencies of a woman whose unschooled view of poetry is on the vaporous side. But Mija's distraction takes on a really troubling edge when, entrusted with a very delicate mission, she lets her mind wander to the glory of nature – then suddenly realises that she's blown it terribly.

The horrific story of the dead girl could have provided the sole content for a different film; what's remarkable here is that writer-director Lee focuses so much on the apparent side issue of the poetry class. Without his ever stating the case, it becomes clear that this is a last opportunity for Mija to retain some grip on language, and on her mind. I'm not sure exactly what Lee's take on poetry is, and how it relates to Korean tradition; but I suspect that on the one hand he's taking the idea of poetry very seriously, while being rather wry about certain more airy-fairy attitudes to the discipline.

At a poetry evening, one man intones, "As the stem of last summer's forget-me-not falls from my fingertips" – and I suspect it's as dopey in Korean as it is in the subtitles. Closer to the bone is the tubby gent resembling a South-east Asian version of John Prescott, who turns out to have an effortlessly charismatic way with salty innuendo – to the horror of Mija, who thinks that poetry should be all beauty and nothing but.

But Lee Chang-dong shows that the poetry of cinema can be about the more painful things. A brilliantly uncomfortable subplot involves Mija's work as carer to an elderly man who's had a stroke. One day, he makes an unabashed pass at her; later, in a scene that's dramatically but subtly taboo-breaking, Mija makes her own decision on how to deal with it.

For Korean audiences, much of Poetry's resonance no doubt comes from the casting of Yun Jung-hee, a respected Korean actress returning to the screen after 16 years. Non-initiates like me won't see any obvious grande dame status in Yun's quietly devastating performance, but rather a composure, a contained intensity and a residual streak of flirtatiousness in Mija's manner. In some of the character's solitary moments, we realise that this quiet woman, with her floral tops and flouncy scarves, still clings regretfully, painfully to the memory of the seductress that she once was.

This flawlessly constructed, bitingly intelligent film really does find poetry in the everyday – but a poetry as savage as it is contemplative.

Next Week:

Nicholas Barber unlocks the secrets of Sarah's Key

Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey


Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower