Film and Television Features

Secret Sunshine (Chang-dong Lee, 2007)

Something of a cross between Lars von Trier’s harrowing psychological drama Breaking the Waves and the comedic social dynamic of an Alexander Payne film, Chang-dong Lee’s Secret Sunshine [Miryang] (2007) is an engrossing part-comic melodrama about the relationship between faith and pain for a young mother, Shin-ae (a mesmerizing Do-yeon Jeon).  She and her young son Jun (Jung-yeob Seon) relocate from Seoul, South Korea, to the smaller Southeastern town of Miryang, the birthplace of her late husband, in an attempt to “start over,” as she says.  Tragedy proves inescapable, however, as she becomes the victim of her own gossip and parental irresponsibility, plummeting into a variation of the seven stages of grief including a path of religious redemption.  But Lee’s insightful direction delivers the events of the film with humanity for the heroine; while the pitch of the film unevenly shifts between scenes, it humanely corresponds entirely with its main character and rarely feels inappropriate.  From private grievance to public exultation, the tone hurtles back and forth in what Dennis Lim (author of “A Cinema of Lucidity”) has characterized as the “blurred line between belief and madness.”  While Shin-ae’s personal crisis remains the film’s center-point, a strangely humorous portrayal of unrequited love emerges for the ever-present mechanic Jong-chan Kim.  His pursuit of Shin-ae is somewhat unwritten, yet he remains a charmingly assertive presence much like a guardian angel who intends to provide a sense of comfort and belonging for Shin-ae despite her apathy and relative romantic disinterest toward him.  He is actually the lone stable force for her throughout the duration of the film.   In accordance with his essay’s title, Lim further adds that Lee’s “implicit aspirations (are) to see more of the world and to see it better.”  With two single, separated male and female characters, the director urges tangible companionship and steadfast human warmth as a superior remedy to the belief in the mystical or what one cannot see, particularly in the grieving Shin-ae’s case.

While Secret Sunshine is scornful of organized religion, it does offer a multifaceted and intriguing commentary on its practice.  Left alone in desperation, Shin-ae simply finds it is within human nature to seek the transcendent good after painful bereavement, and the effect is magnified through the unique brand of religion’s group therapy.  However, Shin-ae’s intense latching to the local women’s prayer circle proves to be just another social comfort.  In Glenn Heath, Jr.’s Slant Magazine review, he illuminatingly writes, “(She) sees religion as just another form of social karaoke, a predetermined lyric sheet where Shin-ae can find momentary solace.”  As the film unravels, so does Shin-ae’s grip on her sanity, underlining how blind conformity can sacrifice one’s psychological well-being.  Because God’s love and forgiveness are accessible by any who wish them or yield, this path is revealed to be a falsehood that does not allow Shin-ae a proper spiritual and emotional recovery.  Lim again explains how the film’s “sickest joke” is revealed during a crucial visit to the man in prison who has robbed Jun’s life.  When presenting news of her spiritual rebirth, the man smugly confesses that he, too, has found God and been absolved of his crime prior to the earthly exoneration from Shin-ae.  This denies her the opportunity to “gain some semblance of meaning and control and exposes the brittle logic of forgiveness” adherent to the Christian faith.  This scene conclusively draws the human/religion relationship as parasitic; one may aim to seize another human being’s moral center while they are subsequently exploited by its simplistic limitations.  Lim himself concludes there may be “no bigger lie than religion – but also acknowledges that sometimes lies are necessary.”  Of course, as Shin-ae discovers, lies are of no comfort.  Believing in the unknown and the imperceptible is a superficially selfless act that only exacerbates confusion and distress.  During the concluding act of the film, as Shin-ae daringly commits sinful acts to punish herself, destabilize God’s will, and rebel against the promoted goodness around her, she looks heavenward and feebly taunts, “Can you see?”  While it’s not exactly clear whether or not her words are rhetorical, Shin-ae’s continuing doubts throughout Secret Sunshine are quite real and potent even when they are not verbalized.

Director Lee explains the purpose of Secret Sunshine to explore the meaning of everyday lives, as it proposes a story about an ordinary person with the inability to accept her own commonality.  Ultimately, this arising polarity is absolutely destructive.  There is inherent conflict in Shin-ae from the film’s opening minute, where she is stranded on an interstate near Miryang between her past and future, attempting to abandon her prior life and build a new one en route.  In the timely arrival of the overly keen Jong-chan with his truck to complete her journey, events seem poised to take an upturn.  Yet Shin-ae at once appears aloof and unable to possess the necessary mindset to wholly begin anew, particularly in her choice of Miryang solely for its connection to her late husband.   Concerning Shin-ae as a character, Lee says, “I wanted to show a human will which is strong enough to reject, deny, and question the meaning that people want to come so easily.”  Christianity is often regarded or depicted as a panacea rather than facilitator to a greater personal realization, and Secret Sunshine uses religion to reveal more about the earthly character of a woman who interacts with it, thus reflecting the title’s suggested meaning.  Despite the tragedy and desolation, Shin-ae finds or is contacted with the means to persevere.  It is within the bounds of the human will and not of God.  Glimpses of this goodwill are witnessed prior to the concluding scene where Shin-ae is extended gestures of praise by the clothing shopkeeper who accepts her decorative layout proposal, and she is suitably shadowed by an undeterred Jong-chan, her figurative angel and the essence of Miryang itself.  Is he Shin-ae’s “secret sunshine?”  Arriving at this lucidity, Variety’s Derek Elley expresses criticism of the lengthy immediately prior act, which attempts a montage of detailed sequences for dramatic effect but ends up less than the sum of its parts.  With an extended running time of 142 minutes, the film occasionally features visually longwinded close-ups of Shin-ae and meanders in a novelistic manner (accredited to Lee’s prior careers as a teacher and author).  Still, Secret Sunshine succeeds in raising important eternal moral questions through an emotionally charged performance from Do-yeon Jeon.