The 'Poetry' of Lee Chang-dong

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Time Out speaks to a master filmmaker from South Korea

hough UK viewers may be more familiar with the revenge sagas of Park Chan-wook (‘Oldboy’) or the playful genre allegories of Bong Joon-ho (‘Mother’), Lee Chang-dong is another South Korean writer-director who’s more than worthy of our attention. Following 2005’s ‘Oasis’ and 2007’s ‘Secret Sunshine’ (both on DVD), ‘Poetry’ is his heartbreaking fifth film, and the first to receive a UK cinema release. It sees Mija, an ailing elderly woman, attending poetry classes while looking after her unruly grandson. 

Were any elements of ‘Poetry’ based on real situations?
‘A few years ago, there was a sexual assault committed by a group of juveniles in a small town in South Korea which became my main motive for making this film. When I first thought of the character of Mija (Yun Jeong-hie), I wrote her down as, “Wearing a hat and a fancy scarf, she looks like a girl going on a picnic.” The description “like a girl” was an important facet of her character. She may be an old lady, but she is like a little girl inside.’

How did you convince Yun Jeong-hie to accept the lead role, her first since 1994?
‘She was a legendary actress in ’60s and ’70s Korean film history, starring in more than 300 films. I didn’t know her personally, though I had met her at a couple of film festivals. When I first thought about this film, I automatically pictured her as Mija. For me, there was no real alternative. And for some reason, I had no doubt that she would accept this role. Before writing the script, I told her the story of the film over dinner. She wanted the role just from hearing the story.’

Among other things, ‘Poetry’ deals with the generation divide between the old and the young.
‘Mija cannot understand nor communicate with her grandson. Because her grandson is an image of a future that has not yet arrived, a future that she won’t be a part of. Who do teenagers talk to nowadays? I tried to represent the generation gap by creating a scene where the grandson, Wook, eats dinner at the table watching TV while Mija stands behind him to watch him eat. It was set in what we typically call “triangular composition” where the television is in the centre (although we can’t see the screen), the grandson wholly focused on watching TV, and Mija looking at the back of his head from a distance.’

Poetry.jpg

As a filmmaker, do you think it’s important to consume lots of literature, visual art, theatre and television?
‘I often tell film students to read as many books as they can. I believe there are not many things that inspire filmmakers more than books. It would be even better if they saw plays and exhibitions. But I wouldn’t suggest watching television since they probably watch too much already. Surprisingly, film students don’t watch many films. Not even the classics. Instead they watch things like “Inception” over and over again.’

Is poetry an important part of Korean culture?
‘As with most other countries, poetry has gradually become less important in Korea. Now, poetry perhaps only exists in the form of advertisement slogans. Poetry is dying. And this is the reason I have made this film.’

Do you recall the first poem that had a profound effect on you?
‘When I was about four or five years old, there was a song that my sister often sung to me. Strangely, the lyrics remained in my head and stirred my imagination. It was long after that I realised that the lyrics were written by a poet named Kim Sowol who died during the Japanese colonial period. Here is the poem:

“Dear mother, sister. Let’s live by the river.
Glistening golden sands in a garden.
The songs of reeds outside a back door.
Dear mother, sister. Let’s live by the river.”

Read our review of 'Poetry'



Author: Interview: David Jenkins



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