★★★ / ★★★★
One of the boys joyfully playing next to a river notices something curious being carried by the current from several feet away. He leans in and upon closer inspection, it turns out to be a lifeless middle school girl floating on her stomach.
Mija (Jeong-hie Yun) is in the waiting room of a hospital because the muscles on her back, adjacent to her right shoulder, are bothering her. But the doctor is more concerned that Mija, in her sixties, has begun to forget nouns. He suggests for her to see a specialist. Later that day, Mija is informed that her grandson, Wook (Da-wit Lee), who has been under her care because his mother works in another city, had been a part of a gang rape with five of his friends. Their victim was the same girl whose body is found floating down the river.
“Shi,” written and directed by Chang-dong Lee, juggles many strands of varying complexities but not all of them are solved within the given running time. Most of them do not need to because, in a way, the movie is not so much about the plot than it is about the rhythm of the every day and the grim discovery that shocks the town gets them buzzing. The emotions behind the manner in which Mija responds to the accusations directed toward her grandson take precedence. And for those that are solved for the sake of cohesion and closure, some of the final answers are quite unexpected.
Mija is eventually diagnosed with a very early stage of Alzheimer’s Disease. There are times when certain things makes sense to her but are nonsensical to those without the condition. The challenge in watching the film is determining when Mija’s affliction gets the best of her versus times when she is fully in control of her mind and body. It is compelling because she feels she has family to defend but she is not in the best health to fight.
The manner in which the grandmother and the grandson’s interactions are shot are ordinary yet powerful. For example, after Mija discovers what Wook does on his spare time, there is no big confrontation to address the issue. Threats of disownment and a possibility of trying to make amends with the girl’s family are not brought up. Instead, the grandson is shown focusing his eyes on the television as he eats dinner, laughing as if he is not at all remorseful about what he had done, and the grandmother stands in a corner of the kitchen, the farthest distance from him without her leaving the room. We wait, riveted, for how one or the other will begin to talk about the big elephant in the room.
Mija attends a poetry class twice a week. She takes the lessons seriously because she really wants to write a poem by the end of the one-month course. During important moments, like when the fathers of Wook’s friends hold a meeting to plan a way to settle with the girl’s parents so that their kids will not have to answer to the police, Mija gets up and jots down observations of nature in her tiny notebook. Poetry is both an escape and a way for her to make sense of the world–to stay connected when her mind is in rebellion.
In “Shi,” also known as “Poetry,” Mija does not have to scream or yell for us to get a sense of the injustice on screen. The sadness and shame in her eyes say it all.