|A river runs through the Korean countryside on the outskirts of a minor city. Gradually something floats into view: it’s a girl, face down. In the city a senior (Jeong Hie-yun) visits her doctor and confides, in her shy way, that she’s starting to forget words. She returns to the apartment where she’s raising her teenage grandson.
The grandma and the teen, memory and the dead girl’s fate: these, then, are the characters and themes. It turns out they are interwoven in a way I won’t divulge except to say that it involves a horrible crime. This movie will also be about creativity: having begun attending a poetry class in which each student must write one poem by the end of the term, the grandma begins willing herself to see the world like a poet even as she is forced to face its harsh reality.
There’s no critique of this particular society in the portrayal of the teen. Rather, he’s like all teens at all times: unresponsive, sullen, sleepy. He eats junk food, enjoys junk TV. Still, in a quiet way the film illustrates how capitalism has eroded social structures and the culture. No one has a conscience: they just want to forget or cover up. This is something the grandma can’t do, even though it would be easier, even though it devastates her to be made to view her grandson as a monster. She loves him, after all. She begins walking in the dead girl’s steps, visiting the bridge from which she leapt, peering into the school science lab where the crimes occurred. And all the while she continues to struggle to compose her poem.
There is no score to tell us what to think or feel; the director, Chang Dong-lee, favors an objective style. It’s flattering. However, at 2 hours and 19 minutes, the picture is longer than it needs to be. I understand that it’s about finding the poetry in everyday life; however thematically resonant, though, we could have done with less of the long, static shots of her fellow poetry students providing personal reminiscences. There is also rather too much coverage of the poetry readings she begins attending. Throughout, though, Jeong Hie-yun has given us a memorable character: a senior yearning to learn to express herself, whimsical but with a steely, resilient core. At the end of the day, this is a woman who does what she needs to do. And though it’s in her nature to suppress disturbing truths (raising the question of how much of her intermittent disconnects from reality are a coping mechanism and how much a result of the Alzheimer’s), she alone cannot forget—will not forget.
There’s a remarkable, moving passage of cinema at the end (spoiler alert!). We’re looking through the eyes of the late girl as she makes her rounds on her last day alive. She greets her dog. She peers into her classroom. She stands on the fateful bridge, then turns and looks right at us. The soundtrack for this odyssey is the grandma’s unveiled poem. Creativity, memory, empathy: from these things the grandma has forged a poem that gives the dead girl a voice, and by doing so, found her own.
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- Mar 31, 2011