Two films that examine other cultures will play on the Vineyard this weekend. Screening at the Capawock Theatre on Saturday, April 9, and Sunday, April 10, “Poetry” is a remarkable character study of a South Korean grandmother who takes up poetry. The Martha’s Vineyard Film Society will present a documentary, “My Perestroika,” about how a group of middle-class Russians experienced glasnost, the sea change in political and social policy instituted under Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980′s, on Saturday, at the Katharine Cornell Theatre.
Novelist and filmmaker Lee Chang-dong has created a masterpiece in “Poetry” reminiscent of the great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu. The film is a study of 66-year-old Mija (Yun Jeong-Hie), who cares for her teenaged grandson Wook (Lee Da-wit) and struggles to write poetry. Mr. Lee’s screenplay won a prize at Cannes in 2010.
This long, quiet film begins with a shot of a river, and, in the distance, a bridge. The water carries a body with it into the foreground. As in so many of the scenes in “Poetry,” the viewer should watch closely what the director depicts, because the details reflect new insights later on.
Mr. Lee uses sound as a powerful indicator of the world he is examining, and in this opening scene, the voices of a group of boys playing on the riverbank echo one of the important motifs of the film — the ironic contrast of youth and old age. The aging but sprightly Mija (Ms. Yun came out of retirement to play the role) appears in a medical waiting room in the next scene, complaining of a prickling in her arm and a tendency to forget words. Like the opening scene, this visit proves an ominous forecast of what the future holds for a seemingly unremarkable woman who dresses fashionably despite her humble station.
Mija proceeds to her part-time job as caretaker for an elderly man disabled by a stroke. He tips her well and appreciates her more than she realizes at first. Returning home, she finds her grandson Wook asleep with pop music blaring. The body floating in the river turns out to be a classmate of Wook’s, but he professes to know little about her.
The pimply-faced young man treats his grandmother with more than usual adolescent disrespect, which Mija notes but does not respond to. She decides to enroll in an adult education class in poetry, arriving late and struggling to understand the teacher’s advice that “to write poetry, you must see well.”
A cell call from the father of one of Wook’s friends brings shocking news that Mija struggles to deal with. Understating the melodrama inherent in events as they unfold, the director constructs Mija’s world as carefully and with as much detail as the painting of a Dutch master.
Along the way, we learn a great deal, not only about Mija, but about South Korean society, including gender relations and the tension between old and new ways. “Poetry” ends on a quiet note that on the surface may seem enigmatic. But if viewers have watched carefully and truly seen as Mija’s poetry teacher suggests, they will understand precisely how each piece of the story fits together.
When the Iron Curtain fell in 1989, life changed dramatically for the Russian people. American director Robin Hessman, who lived in Moscow for nine years and produced the Russian version of “Sesame Street” there, interviews five classmates in “My Perestroika” to explore the ways things did and did not become different for them during Gorbachev’s “reconstruction” — the literal meaning of “perestroika.”
Fascinating newsreel and home movie footage with their vignettes of Russian life in the ’80s and ’90s, alongside Ms. Hessman’s interviews, provide “My Perestroika” with intriguing insights into what Russians thought about the U.S. during the Cold War, and how their nation opened up under Gorbachev.
Lyuba and Borya are now history teachers, married with a son, Mark. As a child, Lyuba was so much the Soviet loyalist that she saluted when Brezhnev appeared on TV with the national anthem. The couple lives in the same apartment Borya grew up in.
Olga, whose banker fiancé was murdered, is a single mother who lives with her son, her sister, and nephew and works for a billiard table rental company. She admits to feeling a bit nostalgic for the certainty life had under the old days of Communism.
Ruslan is a musician and a rebel, playing music in the subway, and spending time with his son Nikita. Andrei is the most successful of the bunch, a Western-style entrepreneur with a chain of men’s clothing stores, who lives in a luxury condominium.
One of “My Perestroika’s” more amusing reminiscences is how “Swan Lake” appeared on TV every time the nation went through another political crisis. Another is how Ruslan quit his successful punk band because it had turned into a “money machine.”
“My Perestroika,” which took Ms. Hessman 10 years to make, was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2010. It does an excellent job of demonstrating how Reagan’s “evil empire” looks from the other side.
“Poetry,” Saturday, April 9, 4 pm and 7:30 pm, and Sunday, April 10 at 4 pm and 7 pm, Capawock Theatre, Vineyard Haven. $7. 508-627-6689.
“My Perestroika,” Saturday, April 9 at 7:30 pm, Katharine Cornell Theatre, Vineyard Haven. $8; $5 for M.V. Film Society members. Doors open at 7 pm. For more information, visit mvfilmsociety.com.
Brooks Robards, of Oak Bluffs and Northampton, is a regular contributor to The Times.