Gentle and heartwarming, Kim Jae-hwan’s documentary Granny Poetry Club (칠곡가시나들) is a cheerful reminder that living your best life doesn’t stop when you age.
The ‘club’ consists of a group of elderly women who congregate at the new Korean classes being offered at their local senior centre in Yakmok, Chilgok County. Although they have raised tertiary-educated children in what some might call an education-obsessed country (for example, the phenomenon of hagwons and the notorious high school leavers’ exam sooneung), they themselves are unable to read or write Korean.
Their illiteracy is one of the many tragic consequences of the brutal 35-year Japanese occupation, wherein the teaching and speaking of Korean was prohibited and all Korean language education phased out. This assimilation eventually resulted in only one in five Koreans being able to read by its end in 1945. The plight of the illiterate, and especially those of girls, was further compounded by the devastation wrought by the Korean War soon after. Even now, female literacy in South Korea lags behind that of men by nearly 3%.
Nonetheless, the grandmothers take to their lessons with gusto, carefully writing hangul with sharpened pencils and engaging in lively discussions of proverbs. They even deny the existence of their homework and drink with great aplomb, just like your average student. As one grandmother Park Geum-bun reflects, they are proud “granny students”, young at heart.
Simply put, Granny Poetry Club is an utterly charming film. Its subjects are as loveable as your own grandparents – they do exactly whatever it is they want in the way that only stubborn elders can, no matter how ill advised (like clambering over rocks to see a waterfall in torrential rain). Their kindly teacher not only teaches them with patience, but visits them as their friend when they are sick, or when the baking Korean summer is in full force. There is meditative footage of their sleepy township of Yakmok as it is visited by the four seasons, interspersed with crisp blankets of snow and watercolour sunsets. A plucky soundtrack that strums alongside our shuffling protagonists also sets a bright pace.
However, it would be a mistake to dismiss the documentary as only light-hearted, feel-good material – the fun is often punctuated by poignant snippets of the women’s daily lives outside class. Grandmother Ahn Yoon-seon goes to the post office for the first time to write a letter to her son, agonising over the address to be written on the envelope. The women spend time with primary school-aged grandchildren who complete more complicated exercises than they do, and offer corrections. During Chuseok, adult children come from manic white-collar jobs in Seoul to visit the mothers who raised them, but who constantly fear that their uneducated status will bring their successful offspring shame. These precious insights are touching, but sobering.
An absolutely delightful work, Granny Poetry Club is proof of the fact that learning is a lifelong adventure, and that being in one’s prime is never correlative to age. Completely deserving of general release, the courage and joy of these grandmothers is a beautiful message to be shared.
Review Score: FIVE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Granny Poetry Club is being shown as part of the Korean Film Festival in Australia (KOFFIA). It will be screening in Melbourne on the 9th of September.
For more information and to book, visit KOFFIA’s website here.