Original title Shi, written and directed by Chang-dong Lee, released 2010.

In brief: In making this film, director Chang-dong Lee wrote not only the part of a lifetime for previously-retired actress Jeong-hie Yun, but also wrote a great deal of poetry that the film’s characters recite. The script alone is a literary achievement.

The horrific crime that drives the story has already been committed as the film opens: the gang rape at school of a teenage girl, who has now drowned herself. With some filmmakers we might have been forced to sit through harrowing bits of those events, but the focus of this film is on what happens after, not before, and so we’re mercifully spared all of that.

This film is also about language. Housekeeper and grandmother Mija is struggling to learn the language of poetry in an adult poetry-writing class, while beginning to lose everyday language due to Alzheimer’s. She’s the only character connected to the crime who’s trying to understand what happened, in the process becoming an amateur investigator of what led to the crime, which involved her own grandson. (The male relatives of the other rapists see the crime primarily as a monetary liability and even the mother of the victim does not appear to be particularly outraged by what happened to her daughter.)

Mija is also the only person in the poetry class who succeeds at breaking through into the world of poetry, finally producing a poem that essentially summarizes what she has discovered, but from the point of view of the dead girl. Mija fails to show up for the final class, so the teacher recites her poem for the other would-be poets. During the recitation the camera floats through the city, ending up at the river bridge where the girl killed herself. The teacher’s voice is replaced by that of the dead girl, and we see a young woman who might be the victim standing on the bridge with her back to us. The feelings engendered by this final scene are almost overwhelming, both heartbreaking and exhilarating at the same time.

I know nothing of Korean poetic tradition, but most cultures produce poetry, which is metrical language that operates simultaneously on the outer ear and the inner eye. When reading the subtitles for the recited poems, don’t forget to listen to the other part, the sound of the poem’s language (even when you can’t understand that language).

© 10 Franks 2015

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