Oct 13 2011

Film Blog: Mother and Poetry

by Iggy Cortez

A still from Lee Chang-Dong’s Poetry (2010).

More often than not, elderly women are relegated to the margins of international cinema, fulfilling the subsidiary roles such as the protagonists’ mother, the wisecracking sidekicks or mystical sages that guide a film’s hero. Rarely are they allowed to become the protagonists of their own narratives. However, the success of two critically lauded South Korean films in which an elderly woman is the sole protagonist has created an opportunity to start thinking about films that engage with aging alongside the development of a national cinema that shows no signs of slowing down.

Beyond their focus on old age, there are distinct narrative and stylistic parallels between Lee Chang-Dong’s Poetry (2010) and Bong Joon-Ho’s Mother (2009), which were released roughly a year apart. Both focus on economically disadvantaged women whose lives are turned upside down when their only child is implicated in the violent deaths of young women. Both films also feature powerful and nuanced performances by veteran actresses who portray characters unhinged by guilt (in Mother) or faced with the onset of amnesia (in Poetry). In Mother, the nameless protagonist is played by Kim Hye-Ja, an actress so highly regarded in South Korea she is often referred to as the nation’s mother; while in Poetry the lead character is a caretaker named Mi-Ja, portrayed by Yun Jeong-Hee, an actress who has starred in more than three hundred films and who agreed to come out of a 16-year retirement to play the role. The films explore the darker aspects of Korean society—the begrudged tolerance of the poor, the entrenched corruption of South Korean institutions, and a strain of misogyny in the country’s culture that tends to downplay otherwise horrifying crimes against women.

There are also, of course, significant differences. Like Secret Sunshine(2007), his most internationally acclaimed film, Lee Chang-Dong’sPoetry is stylistically restrained, moving at a purposefully unrushed pace, while Bong Joon-Ho’s Mother is a visually opulent and feverishly suspenseful thriller whose bleak view of human nature is reminiscent of the director’s sensational debut, Memories of Murder(2003). By giving visibility to the elderly, both directors shed light on their social invisibility within contemporary society and popular culture. In Mother, the protagonist remains nameless, literally vanishing in a crowd of other nameless mothers at the film’s heart-breaking conclusion, while in Poetry, Mi-ja’s passion for dressing in eye-catching floral prints alludes to her desire to appear and to matter in a society where she is consistently dismissed and belittled.

While it would be naïve to come to the conclusion that South Korean cinema does not, like any other nation’s film economy, cater to the youth market, it is still difficult to think of any other country that, in the past decade, has produced successful and high-profile films that consistently challenge our prejudices regarding old age. One only has to look back at the controversy over Too Young to Die (2002), which was censored for portraying a seventy year old couple’s highly active sex-life, or, more recently, the domestic success of indie romantic comedy I Love You (2011) that follows the budding romances of two elderly couples.

Mother and Poetry, however, go even further in their exploration of old age, delving into its psychosocial significance. Unsentimentally, they evoke the estrangement that often accompanies our “twilight years” by denying the spectators the cinematic convention of having full access to the protagonists’ thoughts and feelings. Purposefully kept at a distance from Mother and Mi-Ja, we feel a sense of estrangement that allows us to connect deeply with the social alienation of the characters we follow, often root for, but can never fully know.