It is, perhaps, a belabored cliché to consider how films speak to each other across time and space; however, it's difficult not to observe when films speak to each other contemporaneously for being proximate in space by being programmed in the same film festival. Such was the case at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) where three stylistically distinct films addressed the suffering source of poetry: South Korea's Poetry (Shi, 2010), the German / Austrian / Estonian co-production The Poll Diaries (2010), and the Russian film Silent Souls (Ovsyanki, 2010). In a word, Poetry was incandescent, Silent Souls elegiac, and The Poll Diaries morbid (though beautifully so). I'm quite pleased that all three will be speaking across to each other once again at the 2011 Palm Springs International Film Festival.
The Poll Diaries (Germany / Austria / Estonia, 2010)—I've spoken with Chris Kraus regarding his fourth feature The Poll Diaries, a semi-fictional narrative set in turn-of-the-century Estonia depicting the effect of tumultuous historic events upon the tender sensibility of Oda Schaefer, a young girl whose destiny as a poet is influenced by her interaction with a wounded Estonian anarchist she nurses back to health. Reconciling her family's aristocratic indiscretions with a compassionate concern for the downtrodden, Oda's innate poetic sense is enflamed when she is forced to acknowledge scientific inhumanity, political injustice and social inequality.
Poetry / Shi (South Korea, 2010)—In their brief synopsis for Lee Chang-dong's most recent masterwork, TIFF quipped: "Rhyme and crime intertwine in Poetry, the moving portrait of an elegant old lady in the initial stages of Alzheimer's, as well as a lyrical take on creative discovery and an upsetting look at juvenile violence."
Dispatching to MUBI from Poetry's premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, Danny Kasman observed: "Films about artists or someone creating art are incredibly difficult to pull off. It has something to do with audience verification—if we just hear that someone is a great painter or writer, we can take the film's word for it, but if we see them painting or writing, suddenly the viewer can cast instant judgment on that work and thereby the character and thereby the honesty of the film itself. Lee's film risks it all by including both artistic creation—we see our heroine thinking about and composing poetry—and the art too, since she eventually reads to us her composition. And the film wildly succeeds on both accounts, and at something even more challenging too, which is by painting Yun Jung-hee's character as an almost simple-minded or daft free spirit, which makes the believability of composition, creation, and exposition something requiring terrific subtlety and nuance. That her work is moving even before she finishes her poem, simply in her looking at the world around her and the way her new observations start to trickle through her conversations, is a resounding accomplishment for director and actress." Also at MUBI, David Hudson rounded up the subsequent Cannes reviews (where Poetry won Best Screenplay), as well as the resoundingly favorable reviews from the film's screening at the New York Film Festival (NYFF).
Myself, I caught the film at its North American premiere at TIFF. Straight off, I was struck by how frequently cinematic narratives spring from the body of a dead girl; a thematic domain—if not a genre—unto itself. In Poetry, it is the corpse of teenage Agnes floating down the river. She's committed suicide after being raped by a gang of boys. Somehow it is her spirit that informs Mija's desperation to write one poem before she loses her mind to Alzheimer's. In the role of Mija, Yoon Jeong-hee—who came out of a 16-year retirement—permeates her performance with a wistful sweet sadness.
One of my favorite images from Poetry is when Mija—struggling for inspiration—sits beside the river staring at the bridge from which Agnes leapt to her death. With notepad in hand, Mija sits poised to write; but, a sudden rain arrives before inspiration. The white pages of Mija's empty notepad become startled by dark drops of rain; the cinematic image itself sheer poetry.
Further, the fugacity of human experience is aligned with the natural cycle of growth and decay, which easily becomes one of the most fundamental templates of poetic expression; i.e., the fate of flowers and fruit becomes the fate of human beings or—as Mija herself says in a moment of senescent insight—"apricots are sweetest once they have fallen from the branch."
Silent Souls / Ovsyanki (Russia, 2010)—Aleksei Fedorchenko's third feature film aligns thematically with Lee Chang-dong's riverside reveries in his mesmerizing focus on the obscure pagan practices of a small community of Finno-Ugric people, the Merya, who—as Dimitri Eipedes explains in his official description for TIFF—"never got over their infatuation with water, settling along riverbanks whenever and wherever they could" and all because "they believe death by drowning to be the ultimate release." Silent Souls becomes the filmic version of a novel written on a father's silted typewriter perched on the sides of dead fish: to drown, to drown, to drown....
Again at MUBI, David Hudson has rounded up the reviews from Venice and Toronto 2010, then again from NYFF. Likewise at MUBI, Danny Kasman weighs in independently from TIFF's North American premiere, observing that art cinema hazards blowing small filmic subjects out of proportion with distorting grandeur. He praises that Fedorchenko "keeps the sense of scale intact" and remains steadfast to his simple story about two men dispersing the ashes of a woman they both loved. "Compositions are in wide screen," Kasman describes, "but it is always roads, rivers, doors and paths that extend down the center and into the distance; the weight of solemn grey fixed camera shots lifted to a tranquil, almost nostalgic tone by this continual hint at journey and death."
Cross-published on Twitch.