David Walsh wrote in 2003:
The Asian films in general were disappointing, particularly the South Korean and Taiwanese works, continuing a trend that has deepened in the last few years. In this region especially, an enormous crisis of historical perspective “weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living”—a crisis perhaps epitomized by the fact that one of the most sensitive and observant of the East Asian filmmakers, Lee Chang-Dong, is now the culture and tourism minister in the South Korean government!
Lee Chang-Dong was born in 1954 in Daegu, which some consider the most right-wing city in South Korea.
served as the minister of Culture and Tourism in the South Korean Government from 2003 to 2004.
FC: How did you come to hold government office?
LEE: At the time of President Roh Moo Hyun’s election campaign, one of the things he promised was that his Minister of Culture would be selected from the field of culture and art rather than a professional politician. Well, he got elected, and a lot of people recommended me as this new Minister of Culture. I never thought that this was an outfit that suited me particularly well, but had to accept it as one of those bitter cups one has to accept in the course of life.
Lee is no longer Minister of Culture. The, for South Korea, relatively liberal party of Roh Moo Hyun has been replaced in office by far Right hardliners with links to earlier military dictatorships. Roh Moo Hyun himself committed suicide in 2009.
Lee Chang-Dong is making films again. Today, I saw his film Poetry.
This video is the trailer of that film.
There is a red thread of, indeed, poetry throughout the film. The main character in the film is Yang Mija, a cleaner and care provider for the elderly in her sixties (played by actress Yoon Jeong-hee). She has lots of trouble in her life: beginning Alzheimer’s disease, financial trouble, sexual harrassment by a male client, a grandson with wrong friends whom she has to take care of …
Nevertheless, she tries to find beauty in her life by joining a poetry course.
The film starts with images of the dead body of a teenage girl called Agnes in a river. She, the daughter of a poor peasant widow, had been repeatedly gang-raped by schoolmates. Five members of the rape gang were from well-off families. The sixth boy was Yang Mija’s grandson.
The fathers of the five boys from rich families intend to whitewash their sons’ crimes by giving 30 million won hush money to Agnes’ mother to prevent her from complaining to the police. All families, they say, should pay an equal share for the hush money fund. Including Mija, who cannot pay that.
There is a note of criticism of corruption in South Korean society in the film. The boys’ fathers presume that poor people can be bought off with money (and so can the police and the media). The film has, as a minor character, a fellow poetry course pupil of Mija’s; he is a policeman, sent away from the capital Seoul to a small town for acting against corruption among fellow cops.
Mija prostitutes herself to get the five million won the rape boys’ fathers insist she should pay. Then, she still does not have the money. Finally, she manages to get the five million by blackmail.
This does not save her grandson Jong Wook of being arrested as a rape suspect toward the end of the film. The film leaves many questions open. One of them is: will the cleaner’s grandson be punished for gang rape, while his partners in crime from higher income families will get off more lightly, or scot free?
The final images of the film are about a poem written by Mija (the only pupil in the poetry course who turns out to have managed that). It is a poem for Agnes to console her. The scene is filmed on the bridge where Agnes committed suicide by jumping into the river. In the last images, Agnes hears Mija’s poem. The film leaves the suggestion that, if Agnes would have heard the poem before jumping off the bridge, she would still have been alive.
ACT Now: Support Imprisoned Vietnamese Migrant Workers in South Korea: here.
Korea: Workers resist lockout, violence: here.
Labour advocates have expressed scepticism at a report released today that cleared electronics giant Samsung of responsibility for six semiconductor workers at its South Korean plants developing cancer: here.