Lee Chang-dong's Secret Sunshine opened Friday at St Anthony Main and is absolutely one of those films that should not be missed. Secret Sunshine lit up Cannes nearly four years ago earning Jeon Do-yeon Best Actress and earning the film mounds of critical praise. Six months later, as the film languished without US distribution, I opted to import the South Korean DVD as my only option to see the film and was stunned by the film's audacious delicacy. Although late in the game, IFC picked up the film (along with Lee's equally impressive new film Poetry) for 2010 release. At 142 minutes, Secret Sunshine is a seriously in depth inquiry on human emotions. Below is a review I wrote for In Review Online to be posted there soon.
Prior to the release of Secret Sunshine in South Korea, director Lee Chang-dong insisted that his highly anticipated new film was just “normal.” In an interview with Kim Young-jin, Lee said, “Things couldn’t have been more normal.” Anyone who knows Lee’s work had good reason to be suspicious of this statement. ‘Normal’ is not a word you would use to describe this meticulous director and it is certainly not a word you would use to describe the circumstances surrounding the arrival of Secret Sunshine. Shortly after he completed his third feature, Oasis, to great critical acclaim, Lee was appointed the Minister of Culture by newly elected president Roh Moo-hyun. His filmmaking career went on hold indefinitely when it seemed to be at a peak. After spending one year embroiled in politics, including the bitter fight to maintain film quotas in South Korea, Lee stepped down and disappeared. A few years later this revered novelist and filmmaker emerged with a new script and a new film to make. And everyone knew that it would be anything but normal.
But there is a bit of truth to Lee’s proclamation. Secret Sunshine lacks a certain amount of overt style in favor of unpredictable emotions and a chaos driven narrative. But this is not the chaos of, say, extracting a memory from a dream within a dream within a dream, but a smaller, more personal and inconsequential chaos. Lee’s schisms in time and flights of fantasy found in Peppermint Candy and Oasis are not on the agenda for Secret Sunshine. Lee instead uses his ‘normal’ approach to observe a painful pattern of tragedies and failed self-discoveries in the life of Shin-ae (Jeon Do-yeon), a woman struggling for stability in a very unstable set of circumstances.
Shin-ae is an irreverent single mother with the aura of a woman taking control of her life. Recently widowed, she is moving to her late husband’s hometown of Milyang, which, using Chinese characters, translates to ‘secret sunshine.’ Starting over, however, is far more involved than reconciling the death of her husband. As facts percolate to the surface, we realize that she is not only escaping the accidental death of a philandering and most likely abusive husband, but also a family that blames her for her own misfortune. Finding solace in a strange place is part of the plan, but so is reinventing herself into something other than a victim, not only for herself but also for her solemn young son. Her face of confidence and urban sophistication is a thinly veiled farce, but one that Lee allows us to slowly discover.
Her first encounter is with Jong Chan (Song Kang-ho), an earnest local mechanic who helps Shin-ae when her car breaks down. Just as Shin-ae is looking to start anew, Jong Chan also sees an opportunity for himself by forging a friendship with this newcomer. When Shin-ae boasts that she might be looking for land to invest in, Jong Chan finds a real estate agent to help out. When Shin-ae tells Jong Chan that she will be teaching piano in town, he aggressively solicits students. Their push-pull relationship defines their surface characteristics as well as their more concealed idiosyncrasies. At one point, Jong Chan marches into Shin-ae’s teaching room to hang a bogus award on the wall. It is an odd moment: for Jong Chan, it is an innocent gesture that he thinks will help Shin-ae’s business, but written on Shin-ae’s face and in her reaction is a pathetic admission that ‘awards’ have never been a part of her history. The subtle yet so specific interaction is there for the taking, but it is far from pushed in your face. Its delicacy exists because of a careful lack of emphasis that permeates even the most dramatic moments.
When tragedy strikes nearly a third of the way into the film, the event, although gratuitous, neither looks nor feels that way. Instead, Lee’s “tragedy” is used as device no different from Hitchcock’s MacGuffin—to propel Secret Sunshine down its eventual wandering road. But more importantly, it allows Lee to fully explore the tumultuous emotions of the enigmatic Shin-ae and her intrepid tag along, Jong Chan. In many ways, the major earthquake in Shin-ae’s life causes Lee to steady his camera even more and keep a lock on his unobtrusive observational tone. As his lead character rides an emotional rollercoaster—distilling grief with shock, revelation, grace, depression, anger and eventual resignation—the film never pushes the story or the audience with manipulation. In one of the most harrowing scenes, Shin-ae, overcome with sorrow, aimlessly walks into a religious revival and proceeds to emote with unabashed tears and wailing. Jong Chan, who has followed her in, is our companion in trying to process what is going on. Ultimately, it seems that Shin-ae is most comfortable among complete strangers, but the questions of a character’s actions (both Shin-ae’s and Jong Chan’s) are the elegant mysteries of Secret Sunshine.
One of the most refreshing things about Secret Sunshine is how hands-off Lee Chang-dong is with Jeon Do-yeon as Shin-ae. Tags of artifice, be it music or close-ups, are cast aside to allow Jeon to give a performance that won Best Actress at Cannes in 2007. Shin-ae’s breakdown does not solicit false sympathies and it certainly isn’t a setup for a narrative trap (or the nominal cue that breakdown will eventually equal recovery.) Jeon embodies the innocence and grace of someone born again, but also the erratic emotions that go along with trauma and grief. The same could be said about Song Kang-ho as Jong Chan, but his character keeps the (mostly) even-keel of a misguided playboy. Nonetheless, Song performance is a tempered counterpoint to Jeon.
Secret Sunshine is receiving a belated U.S. release—nearly four years after it drew attention at Cannes—just ahead of Lee’s new film Poetry, another film that Lee would no doubt call normal. Extraordinary is what I would call both of these films: testaments to exquisite filmmaking and audacious acting. Secret Sunshine takes the makings of a melodrama and pulls the spotlight off the drama and onto the characters with such elegant ease, you hardly notice. Jeon Do-yeon and Song Kang-ho turn the film into a rich discovery in which no one succumbs to the heavy-handed design. The result exposes our human frailties and innate paradoxes. The final shot of the film has the last word. With a note of irrelevance, the camera slowly moves away from Shin-ae and Jong Chan to follow a lock of her cut hair. It lands on the peripheral, a spot of otherwise unnoticed secret sunshine, ending with a beautifully understated and unresolved dot-dot-dot.