Secret Sunshine

Dir: Lee Chang-dong


Rediscover is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that have flown under the radar and now deserve a second look.

Considering its direction at the hand of former South Korean Minister of Culture Lee Chang-dong, it is no wonder that Secret Sunshine comes to us steeped in cultural specificity, in nuanced examinations of regional relations, social norms and religious behaviors uniquely informed by Lee’s intimately familiar lens. Setting, place and belonging are central to Sunshine, recently released on DVD by the Criterion Collection, as everything from the film’s geographically specific title to the numerous panoramas of the South Korean landscape repeatedly suggest. And yet despite such localized elements, the film is hardly confined to definitions of South Korean cultural identity. On the contrary, Lee proves himself a masterful thematic mixologist, blending questions of faith, sanity and other relative abstractions to moving affect amidst representations of evangelical Christianity, horrific grief and the trivialities of daily existence. Held together by the magnetically multifaceted performance of diminutive actress Jeon Do-yeon, Secret Sunshine hits stateside screens at last after winning accolades at Cannes, Toronto, Telluride and the New York Film Festival since its original release in 2007.

Jeon Do-yeon stars as Shin-ae, a young widow starting over in her late husband’s hometown with their son Jun (Seon Jung-yeop) in tow. Determined to begin a piano school and possibly even buy land in the conservative town of Miryang (the name of which means “secret sunshine”), Shin-ae settles in, albeit awkwardly, book-ended by the unsolicited assistance of a smitten, comically jovial auto mechanic, Jong Chan (Song Kang-ho) on one side and the skeptical curiosity of the townspeople on the other. When personal tragedy breaks Shin-ae’s already tenuous strength, she turns to the church in desperation. But faith, peace and redemption aren’t as easy to maintain in madness as they are to find in a moment of need; and Shin-ae struggles to reconcile belief and betrayal and forgiveness, levitating above life in a cloud of pain and confusion that threatens to consume her utterly.

Jeon’s dramatic range is largely responsible for the film’s impact, so willing is she to imbue her slight frame and serene features with unspeakable power and pain in order to convey Shin-ae’s wretched journey and evoke the more ethereal elements of Lee’s tale on camera. If the film seems tinged with the melodrama so popular in more mainstream Korean entertainment, it is tempered by Jeon’s equal comfort with the subtleties of her character’s experience – the little joys and pains of motherhood, glimmers of happiness and humor and insight that pepper the more dramatic punctuations throughout Secret Sunshine’s nearly two and a half hour run. Besides, the stereotypes and seeming incongruities woven within the film – like Jong Chan’s relentless good humor and puppy-like pursuit of Shin-ae, the ubiquitous karaoke scenes, or the simplicity with which Shin-ae’s prayer groups and vigils are portrayed – are there to bring us ever back to the context of the story, the cultural specificity that adds yet another layer of meaning to Lee’s already loaded look at life, death, faith, sanity and salvation.

A background in South Korean cultural history isn’t necessary in order to appreciate Secret Sunshine; and indeed, given some of the parallel issues at hand in Lee’s film and our own American socio-political landscape, the consideration of familiar concerns in a wholly unfamiliar light might breed better and deeper reflection than one infused with more recognizable partisan cues or presumptions. And yet I can’t help but feel that we lose some depth, and certainly some contention, in cross-cultural translation (and perhaps this is why the film’s United States release was delayed so long). Regardless of your cultural background, however, Secret Sunshine will be at once difficult to watch and impossible to ignore. Lee Chang-dong wrangles so much that is unseen and unspeakable into this film, and Jeon Do-yeon defies us to ignore the gnawing questions amongst which she so fearlessly wades, her tortured eyes turned heavenward, to our supreme discomfort.

by Lauren Westerfield

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture on 1/5/11)

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