Recently, a friend recommended Lucy Bolton’s chapter The Intertextual Stardom of Iris: Winslet, Dench, Murdoch, and Alzheimer’s Disease,Feminisms: Diversity, Difference and Multiplicity in Contemporary Film Cultures (2015). This took me years back before I started my blog. Coming back to the film, I posted on August 24th 2011 : Iris and Cultural Ageism.
As an exercise, I asked myself what I remembered of the films with a dementia theme. From Iris the image of young Iris careering down a street on a bicycle was prominent.
But from Away From Her 2016, it was a thought rather than an image that persisted. Knowing little about Dementias at the time I found it extraordinary that the newly diagnosed protagonist, was capable of foreseeing her future and insisted on being in control of it.
I had been working on and off on Poetry (2010) and found it extremely difficult to follow the thread of the film’s narrative. I was overwhelmed by the youth gang rape, the school girl suicide, the fathers of the rapists and the collusion the school head in hiding the crime, and the grandmother’s efforts to contribute to the compensation.
I collapsed in unconsciousness and admitted to hospital with pneumonia. That night I had an extraordinary dream. I was viewing Poetry, in full colour and two parts. Part one was Mija in early dementia pursuing her needs and recollecting her youth, the gang rape, the cover up. Part two was Mija’s confirmed Alzheimer’s diagnosis and her determination to fulfil her duties before committing suicide. In my delirium a sentence kept appearing: you will only understand the film if you consider it as the story of an independent 66 year old woman recently diagnosed with Azlheimer’s.
And indeed now recovered, I see Mija’s story as the story of a 66 years old woman, diagnosed as suffering from Alzheimer disease.
I will not analyse scene by scene and sequence by sequence but will give an overall account of details that made sense to me.
In the first half of the film we get to know Mija. She is fiercely independent. She looks after her teenager grandson to help her divorced daughter who lives away. He is un unpleasant youth involved in the group rape of a school girl. She works as a carer/cleaner for a man disfigured by a stroke. Mija does not divulge to her daughter that she has been referred to Seoul to confirm a diagnosis of Alzheimers. She does not divulge to her daughter the involvement of her son Wook in the gang rape and the following suicide of the school girl. She insists on being admitted to the poetry class because she was ‘good at poetry in her youth’. We see her rummage in her bag to look for her purse that she holds in her hand and find it difficult to find the last word of sentences. She steals the photo of Agnes the school girl at the funeral service. She visits the school and peeps into the lab where the rapes took place.
At around 1hour we and Mija have the definite diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. We have seen her rummage in her bag to look for her purse that she holds in her hand and find it difficult to find the last word of a sentence. But in the next sequences we have now two modes of Mija’s behaviour. On the one hand she escapes into the beautiful poetic world and on the other she has to confront the practicalities of dealing with the responsibilities of her grandson’s crime.
Thus while waiting for one of the fathers of the young rapists to ask him for a loan to pay for her part of compensation she sings;
Time passes and flowers fade
Wet lipstick on the wine glass
With my yearning for you
Ive been grabbing onto the rope I had to release
but now is the time to let go.
you may have forgotten
my name by now
But I crudely raise
A wine glass again because of you
Now I wanna take off my dress of attachment
And drink a glass of oblivion
During the poetry session while women speak of their experiences and feelings as adults, she reverts to her very early childhood. A trip to the countryside leads her to a main road, a bridge and the wide river. She considers the depth of the river, looks at her hat fall down into it and as the raindrops fall onto her poetry booklet she gets back all wet onto the bus and returns to her disabled employer.
The following sequence where she gives him a viagra tablet and carries out a full sexual act is the source of many disagreements amongst people I know. Personally I choose to think that having contemplated death she decides to repair her unkind outburst at his earlier request.
She next is persuaded by the fathers of the rapists and the school director to influence “woman to woman” the mother of the young victim into accepting the compensation. She travels to her village. But on the way she gets distracted by nature, the birdsong and the ripe apricots falling on the ground. She converse with the mother and does not approach the subject of compensation.
the apricot throws itself to the ground
it is crushed and trampled for its next life
blessed to walk in such beauty
As she leaves the mother we see her realise that she did not do what she was supposed to do.
The next sequence is a poetry conference.The policeman who declaimed rather rude poems in class is defended by one of the women who says that he is a good policeman and fights against corruption.
Finally she breaks down under the stress of her two worlds. She sits down on the ground outside the hall and sobs The policeman: Why are you crying big sister, is something wrong? is it about poetry because you can’t write any? He sits next to her.
This is another example of cuts where the viewer is left to interpret. Cut to her untidy flat. She puts the photo of the young school girl on the table and looks at her.
She prepares the meal. Wook sits at the table and looks at the picture. Give me something to eat I am hungry. He turns the tele on. She is on the balcony looking at the children playing. This time Wook appears as a young child happy playing with the children. This is probably the time of her decision. (Children playing at the bottom of Mija’s flat is a recurring image) .
She goes to tell the fathers that she has not got the money but she is pressurised by the men and the presence of the the mother.
Next sequence is a family scene of the disabled man and a her demand for money.
Please give me five million won. I beg you don’t ask why. Why should I give you money without a reason? Is this blackmail?
it does not matter what you think. I won’t make any excuses.
Again this is a scene where interpretations by viewers differ about Mija’s intentions. Personally I do not think that she was blackmailing him. She saw this as her duty to pay her due.
The next sequences are the most subtle and heartbreaking. Mija grabs her grandson from the playing arcade, takes him for a meal, suggests he should have his hair cut, cuts and cleans his toe nails, comments on the way he washes, “you should always keep your body clean.” Cut to Mija and Wook playing badminton at the bottom of the flats. A car stops and the policeman looks at the game, suggests how to play while his aid guides Wook to the car and drives away. The game carries on between Mija and the policeman.
At the table Mija writes. Cut to the poetry class where the teacher reads the poem Agnes Song sent by Mija.
Cut to Mija’s daughter entering the neat empty flat.
At the Poetry class, the poem Agnes Song is read first with the images of children playing, then a travelling shot of Agnes walking to school, and Mija’s voice slowly replaced by the young schoolgirl’s voice. It is time to say goodbye …. and slowly Agnes turns round and looks into the camera.
I am fascinated by the way this film portrays an older woman subjected to the early symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. On a background of social corruption and male power she appears in control and decides to take a major decision. Her end is not obviously exposed but it is left for the viewer to imagine.
Finally I found the balance between escape into poetry and need to confront reality a very interesting view of the beginnings of Alzheimer disease.