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From 2003 - 2004 the author and filmmaker Lee Chang-dong took some time away from his art to serve as South Korea’s Minister of Culture, and the appointment seems to have made him a more thoughtful and committed artist. Lee’s two features since returning to filmmaking (Secret Sunshine and now Poetry) are profound in their consideration of art’s role in society.
The films argue that that role extends beyond providing therapeutic comfort to those who make art (though one of the most moving aspects of Poetry is its insistence this comfort is available to everyone)—art can validate suffering by finding universal wisdom in any human experience. As in Secret Sunshine, the plot of Poetry is filled with traumatic episodes, yet I wouldn’t call either film upsetting. Lee has developed a patient, philosophical style that looks through the immediate impact of a scene to ponder what it teaches about human nature. Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Decalogue is a notable precedent for this kind of filmmaking, and like Kieslowski, Lee has the rare ability to foster sympathy for characters whose actions might first seem beneath contempt.