Imagine growing up and being denied the right to learn or speak your own language. Imagine being 87 years old and sitting down with your grandchild, only to be learning the exact same words as them? In 1937, the Japanese ruled over Korea with a puppet government. During this time, they instated a law banning the practice of Korean culture and Korean language. The documentary 'Granny Poetry Club', directed by Jae-Hwan Kim, details the lives of a group of elderly Korean women as they navigate the limitations of their robbed knowledge, whilst also proving to themselves and the people around them that it’s never too late to learn something new.
This movie has a layered and charming premise. On a surface level, it presents what seems to be a very simple narrative and structure. It is anything but. As the story unfurls, it becomes glaringly obvious that this movie is dynamic and layered in its presentation of its multiple themes. Firstly, a documentary about an elderly group of female friends is kick-arse in itself. When you combine this with a discussion of art, family, friendship, culture, wisdom, life, fear and optimism, it really does create a hybrid tale of inspiration and encouragement.
The film relies on the charisma of its subjects. This wonderful group of grannies are cheeky and influential. They offer true displays of the challenges and burdens we face as we grow old, but are strong and brave in the face of them. Their greatest quality is their reflection, attitude and heart that we all aspire to have in our old age. The kick to these friendly ladies is they exemplify the journey of determination and learning we think can only occur when we are young.
Whilst these women are entertaining to watch and make for a great story, the film tends to overdo the original core message by relying on the sentimentality the audience might feel for the elderly and their everyday lives. As such, the tension and drive of the film is somewhat lost as it becomes a documentation of what these ladies do, rather than about why they do it. The political circumstances of the past get lost, and the language classes become second nature in the routine of their lives as we witness events such as singing contests, shopping, washing laundry or eating out. Honing in on that initial exposure of what happened in 1939 and using that as a bedrock to keep coming back to and to teach us would have motivated the story more. Likewise, it would have added another emotional layer as to why these women were deprived of the right to learn their own language in their own country. This was somewhat explored in a moment where the ladies detailed the challenge of teaching their grandchildren, but it was only touched upon lightly.
The best part of this film is, it’s unexpected. This documentary tracks a group of unlikely people in a very peculiar and undocumented situation.
As briefly as the poetry was incorporated, the subtitles are left in their original condition of broken "Korean" (English for viewers). It's a really nice touch to see the improvement of the words we ourselves are reading, as the ladies progress in their learning. It's a very innocent and honest aid to the objective of the documentary.
The best part of this film is, it’s unexpected. This documentary tracks a group of unlikely people in a very peculiar and undocumented situation. It brings to surface conflict and displacement brought on by the 1930s and unearths a very unique struggle, a never-before-seen spectacle. It’s completely different, its characters are idiosyncratic, and I don’t think this film could be compared to anything else. For someone who has a fear of growing old, it's rewarding to be reminded that age is but a number, and we are only as limited as we think we are.