Director: Lee Chang-dong
I have to admit my ignorance as far as films from South Korea go – I haven’t seen any. But I think that will change now that I have seen Secret Sunshine, written and directed by Lee Chang-dong (Peppermint Candy, Oasis.) The film follows a young widower, Shin-ae and her young son Jun who are moving to Milyang (which translates in Chinese to ‘secret sunshine’) which is the hometown of the recently deceased husband and father. However writing a review about this film in which one must provide some kind of a synopsis is almost too difficult. The events of this film range from the utterly mundane—unwanted advice from a pharmacist, Jun making a speech at school, an amorous mechanic and his unreturned advances—to events so shocking that one cannot speak of them without giving away the whole story.
What is easy to write about is the performance by Jeon Do-yeon as Shin-ae who evokes so seamlessly a gamut of emotions; the pitiful depths of grief to the dizzying highs of religious ecstacy. It is no wonder she won the best actress gong at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007 for this role. She is such a layered character, starting from the awkward newcomer who after making pleasantries with a local shopkeeper bluntly tells her that the drab interior of her shop could do with a makeover. Such instances of pettiness and forced politeness accumulate so that the viewer is writhing in a sense of untold menace which is made all the more unnerving because there has been no forewarning of what we instinctively feel is coming. The local mechanic Kim Jong-chan is also a notable character. Played by Song Kang-ho, who is according to my research a superstar in South Korea, Jong-chan is a lovable ‘everyman’ who without Song infusing the character with such depth, could easily have gone unnoticed. He also serves as a kind of diffuser for the instability of Shin-ae, staying by her side throughout, even when it is made clear to him that his advances are unwanted. Without giving anything away, the straw that eventually breaks the narrative camel’s back sees Shin-ae finding refuge amongst a group of evangelical Christians only to reject them all after a failed act of forgiveness against a past transgressor. The second half of the film then follows Shin-ae as she acts out agressively against a God she has come to deeply resent.
Although the second half doesn’t match the virtuosity of the first half, the final scene is subtle, simple and magnificent in showing Shin-ae’s coming to terms with the events of her life and accepting her own capacity to choose her life’s path. This film feels like several films within one, not simply because of the events that unfold but also because of the depth of the Shin-ae character who goes through so many transformations and illustrates all human emotions that one hopes this film and Jeon Do-yeon become known to as wide an audience as possible.