Left: Hong Sang-soo, Hahaha, 2010, color film in 35 mm, 116 minutes. Right: Lee Chang-dong, Poetry, 2010, color film in 35 mm, 135 minutes.


“TRY WRITING a pretty poem every day,” the sixteenth-century Korean naval hero Admiral Yi advises Jo Munk-yung (Kim Sang-kyung) in a dream in Hong Sang-soo’s Hahaha, which screened this morning in Un Certain Regard. Munk-yung, a Seoul-based director on the skids visiting the coastal town of Tongyeong, tries his hand at verse to impress the tour guide he initially assesses as possessing an “average face, but a very nice figure.” Like most of Hong’s recent films, Hahaha unfolds as a featherweight, auteur-stamped rom-com, with the men pickled in alcohol and hopelessly bumbling, and the women mercurial, capricious, and often right.

Lyrical compositions serve more serious purposes in Lee Chang-dong’s Competition entry, Poetry. Lee, last in contention for the Palme d’Or with 2007’s Secret Sunshine (for which Jeon Do-yeon took home the Best Actress prize), creates another powerful narrative about a woman raising a child on her own. Mija (Yoon Jeong-hee), a proper, sixtyish home aide in the early stages of dementia, lives with her sullen adolescent grandson, whose mother is looking for work in Pusan. Enrolling in a poetry class, Mija anxiously awaits inspiration from the muses—which arrives the moment she decides her charge must finally suffer the consequences of a heinous act he has committed. Perfectly paced and performed, Poetry stands out as both a quietly scathing condemnation of male violence (and the craven attempts to cover it up) and an ode to the strength—and moral compass—of senescent women.

Pure poetry of another sort, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s rapturous tale of reincarnation, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, playing in Competition, includes visitations from dead loved ones, men who are half monkeys, and talking catfish who know how to sexually gratify ancient princesses. “I don’t know how I will find you after I’m dead,” the title character (Thanapat Saisaymar), suffering from kidney failure, frets to his wife’s specter. “Ghosts are attached to people, not places,” she assures him—and anyone else who aches to reunite with someone who left them too soon.

Melissa Anderson