REVIEW: Granny Poetry Club (2019)

In 1937 an occupying Japanese regime, in an effort to solidify its control over Korea, banned the teaching of Korean language in all schools. For children going through school at that time, it meant a lifetime of illiteracy. In the new documentary Granny Poetry Club, a group of women in the late eighties boldly return to school, intent on finally learning how to read and write.

Kim Jae-hwan directs this genuine and heartwarming film, which focuses on an ensemble of seven elderly women learning Korean together at their local community centre. Their husbands – those who had them – have all died. Their children all live away from home in Seoul or other big cities. By meeting each day to learn how to read and write, they have formed their own support network and social club. It gives them all a renewed sense of purpose, and their activities together form the core of what can only be described as an utterly joyful film experience.

It is honestly like watching a group of teenagers, as the seven women strut down the main street of town, or ride on the swings of a local children’s playground, or get drunk together on soju. They gently mock each other, and support one another. It plays out in a delightful series of episodes: some of the women take a trip to a national park. One of them decides, at 87-years-old, to enter a local talent contest. In one particularly emotive sequence, a woman writes to her son in Seoul for the first time – and cries when she can read his reply.

There is no driving purpose to this documentary other than celebration. It is wonderful to see these engaging, funny women find a renewed purpose, and improve their skills, and socialise enthusiastically. Throughout the film, Kim pauses the main action to showcase short poems written and performed by the women. On an emotional level it feels wonderful, and the poems vary between thoughtfulness and whimsy. In the execution it is badly flawed: the English subtitles attempt to mimic the shaky handwriting of the original hangul (Korean script) characters by getting deliberately riddled with spelling mistakes. It is a serious mis-step – whether dictated by the director or its American distributor, it makes them difficult to read and feels instinctively demeaning to the women themselves. It is a sole flaw in an otherwise delightful film.

One positive surprise is just how beautiful the film looks. Kim takes advantage of the small-town setting to capture some absolutely beautiful rural settings. There is  strong sense of landscape and greenery throughout, and momentary pauses between the action allow the viewer to soak in the setting and atmosphere. It moderates the film’s pace and creates a leisurely, deeply pleasant effect. It also gives the picture a strangely horizontal, flat aesthetic.

The best documentaries take their viewers to experience part of the world they would unlikely ever see for themselves. They showcase rare or unique people and situations, and provide an insight into the world. Granny Poetry Club does all of these things, and it does them with heart, humour, and a stunning sense of place. It comes strongly recommended.

Granny Poetry Club is playing at the Korean Film Festival in Australia. For more information click here.

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