Judging by outward appearances, Mija (Yun Jung-hee) is a vivacious, contented 66-year-old woman with a pleasant, if routine, life in Poetry. She works part-time caring for a handicapped man (Kim Hira) and comes home to a matchbox apartment and the sullen teenage grandson her daughter has saddled her with raising.
Dressed in pretty sun hats, lacy skirts, and bright tunics, Mija is archetypally feminine and cheerful, "always chirping away like a skylark" as the handicapped man tells her, despite a station in life some might see as grim. She does exhausting, humiliating work bathing and cleaning up after her employer and cooking and cleaning for her deadbeat grandson Wook (Lee David). She's treated dismissively by doctors (from whom she seeks help for a troublesome arm and an increasingly bad memory) and by the handicapped man's daughter-in-law.
But there is something more urgent beating beneath the skin of this South Korean grandmother, which compels her to register for a poetry class at the local cultural center. Director Lee Chang-dong's exquisite, heart-wrenching character study is an examination of the beauty that Mija finds in the literary form, which she uses as an escape from the ugliness that begins to intrude upon her world. Her eagerness to learn, to unleash the poet she has always felt was lurking inside her, expresses an innate human desire to give voice to the emotional tumult and experiences harbored inside all of us. Mija's poetry teacher instructs his class to observe and pay attention to the world around them. She takes the teacher's instructions to carefully study her environment — even something as small as an apple — as sacrament.
That untapped potential and creativity lurking even within ordinary people is the overriding theme of Lee's achingly poignant film. A master of understatement, Lee (Secret Sunshine) conveys that idea of grace in the everyday in a sequence where each of the poetry class students goes to the front of the room to discuss the most beautiful moment in their lives. One woman remembers teaching her grandmother, now dead, how to sing. Another woman recalls the pain and joy of childbirth. The only man in the class says, "I don't have any beautiful memories. I'm sorry." But he remembers, with a blissed-out expression, moving from a shabby basement apartment to his first real home and the joy that brought him.
Soon after enrolling in the poetry class, Mija gets news that shakes her up in the most profound way. Her grandson, along with five of his classmates, has been involved in a terrible crime against a 16-year-old female classmate, Agnes. Conspiring with school officials, the boys' fathers plot to come up with enough hush money to pacify Agnes' mother. It will destroy the boys' future if news of the crime leaks out, one of the fathers protests. The fathers are consumed with protecting their sons instead of punishing the evil act they have committed. Troubled by their attitude, but also conflicted by her concern for Wook, Mija undertakes a path of discovery, visiting the classroom where the crime occurred. But her inquiry also becomes a kind of self-discovery. In a society founded on repression, where Mija struggles mightily to confront her grandson about his role in a horrible crime, her art unburdens her. It's a way to cut through denial and hopelessness with truth and light.
Director Lee implies that there has perhaps been some unnamed trauma in Mija's past that makes her empathize with Agnes. Poetry, especially the Friday night meetings of poetry lovers in the small town where she lives, clearly becomes a salve to the darkness that has intruded into her sunny disposition.
Mija longs to write a poem. But it is what that poem represents — the desire to experience, remember, and live fully — that Lee clearly believes is a lesson we could all benefit from.