Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry (2010) features my favourite female protagonist. Mija, an ageing woman lives with her grandson who is a high school student. With early-onset Alzheimer’s threatening to take over her mind, she soon has to grapple with another calamity: her grandson is linked to the death of a girl for which she has to gather a considerable sum of money so that the guardians of all the boys involved can pay off the authorities. While trying to deal with the disconnect she feels with her surroundings, she takes up poetry as a way of reconciling her bond with nature. But the toxicity of the patriarchal world around her, focused on clearing the boys’ names (completely detached from the nature and implications of the crime itself), drains her while she is on the mission to compose a poem that will articulate what she’s feeling.
In today’s era of trends and constant sensationalism, things run out of relevance often before coming into their own, but as a story of the disparity between men’s and women’s perception of the very same world they live in, Poetry is timelessly relevant. No, Mija isn’t your everyday feminist icon. She doesn’t give empowering speeches, isn’t breaking any glass ceilings, and even avoids confronting men when they cross boundaries. What she does do, is observe, remember and do everything in her power to enact justice. As a woman with limited resources, she is a doting guardian, but uncompromising in her principles. Her motherly nature comes to the forefront when she has to help her son, but eventually, it’s the ache for a woman’s misfortune that dictates her final actions. And for that rebellious act of giving voice to the angst she feels as a woman in a patriarchal world, she is my favourite female protagonist.
The story is presented entirely through Mija’s own eyes, but the film is not a character analysis of Mija’s personality. Poetry has a certain foggy inexplicability in its presentation, choosing to provide the audience with scenarios and reactions, but not delving into details about motivations. It’s a meandering portrait of patriarchy, not painted with malice in the heart, but with a sense of awareness that you’d expect from a poet. The structural fluidity that poetry often has, despite following a general flow of narration, is reflected in the film’s own structuring. All the narrative points seem to develop at their own pace, unconcerned about the development of the other ones, only to finally merge together in the climax and present a meaningful take on the central topic the film is based on.
Mija takes care of herself and her grandson, but the latter barely listens to her. She lets him be but is clearly agitated by the brashness in him. She herself pays attention to how she presents herself, how she carries herself, and this gives her a dignified screen presence even at her lowest. She’s not obsessed with appearances, just in sync with herself, and appreciative of aesthetics. As Alzheimer’s is slowly robbing her of her ability to hold memories, she wants to feel something deep in her bones before she bids adieu to the world of sensations. And that’s why she decides to learn poetry. As a way to put her weariness into words that would also hopefully help her cope with the way she’s feeling and become something that can cement her bond with reality before it becomes inconceivable to her.
Mija isn’t outspoken, but she isn’t a pushover either. She complies with the demands of men when it comes to helping her grandson’s future, but when the old man she takes care of pushes boundaries and practically breaches her consent, she stops him. She is also a practical woman, which is why she seems to struggle with finding inner depth in the mundane reality. And eventually, she fulfils the man’s carnal needs. This is where the modern feminists will fly into a rage because she abandoned her own principles, and they’ll again hail her when they feel like she used that as a premise to blackmail her way into getting the money her son needs. However, I think there’s more to her actions. I believe it was a way of connecting with herself as well. Since it all has to do with sensuality, she herself wanted an experience that would hopefully give birth to the poet in her.
Mija feels like a very authentic person and not a character created for sensational purposes. Of course, the more common icons in cinema, like Amy Dunne from Gone Girl and Erin Brockovich from Erin Brockovich are also authentic characters but there’s a sense of dramatization in their narratives. In Poetry, Mija is a lower-middle-class woman, who doesn’t have the means or the courage to outright declare war on men. And even though every narrative has its own authenticity, this is a relatable narrative as the common person is completely helpless in the face of major change. Revolution often doesn’t grow beyond a personally motivated drive to do better by oneself and the restrictions aren’t about being defeated, but about finding less extreme methods of justice and often just being aware of reality in a practical way that doesn’t allow for radical thought.
Mija is a woman I feel everyone will connect with. They’ll not find an outlet for their fantasies in her, but she’ll make them feel understood in the way she feels misunderstood. Everyone is, at a level, a misfit and Mija is completely not a part of the world she’s forced to enter because of her grandson’s misdeeds. She’s visibly uncomfortable in the company of the men who are obsessed with clearing their sons’ names and have no concern whatsoever about the fact that it was a criminal offence that deserves consequences. Her heart aches for the girl who is the victim, and while she doesn’t spell it out because she’s unsure of how that will affect her grandson, she feels connected with the girl in a way, and eventually does something quite uncharacteristically rebellious, but still practical and not extreme.
The ending of Poetry, apart from the beautifully orchestrated buildup to it, is why Mija is a permanent resident of my heart. She represents every victim of toxic masculinity and patriarchy in general, but she isn’t helpless and maintains a certain dignity despite not breaking chains. She plays badminton with her son, goes on long walks, allows herself to wander around her little world, attends slam poetry conventions and seeks solace in artistry. She isn’t abrasive but has her own definition of freedom which she won’t give up. She is a powerful presence because she feels like an honest portrait of a reluctant revolution that is born out of a personal need to change, and doesn’t require being shown off to the whole world. I’ll forever cherish Poetry and my dearly beloved Mija.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.