A body floats along the river. Mija, (Yun Jung-hee) always dressed in light florals is a quiet, unassuming 66 year old who lives in a small apartment in Korea with her teenage grandson, Jongwook (Lee Da-wit). She is diagnosed with early onset dementia and remembers that at school she was praised for her poetry – something she has given up. Now that words are being forgotten she enrols on a poetry class at her local college.
What is poetry? How do I find inspiration? How do I begin to write? The film is punctuated by her asking these questions of her teacher, other students and poets she hears at recitals. Observe says her teacher. It’s about the importance of seeing. Look closely at everything he advises as he picks up and examines an apple. Mija studies an apple in her kitchen, and starts to carry a notebook and pen around with her constantly taking notes. But still she struggles to find the inspiration she’s looking for.
The body in the river belonged to a young girl, who lived with her widowed mother and young brother on their small farm. Mija learns that her secretive lout of a grandson and his equally loutish friends are implicated in the girls’ death and her life becomes entangled with the fathers who are trying to raise funds to bribe the girls mother into silence. With backing from the children’s school, the men meet in cafe’s and bars to discuss the funding. Such is their arrogance they don’t even lower their voices while they pour the beer and trample over Mija’s innocent disbelief with offhand disrespect. That this is played against such an ordinary backdrop makes the crime and their behaviour even more shocking.
Written and directed by Lee Chang-dong, this is a long, contemplative study of an extreme situation that’s dealt with by quiet composure. As Mija tries to make sense of the situation so she begins to truly see her world and is able to transcend the cruelty around her and in her reality find the art that will be her poem and bring justice.
This is often a beautiful film, Mija’s character is the epitome of gentleness, and flowers, rustling leaves and flowing rivers are motifs that meander throughout but it doesn’t shy away from brutality or asking some difficult questions.