When her husband passes away in an automobile accident,Shin-ae relocates down south to her late husband's hometown of Miryang. Despite her efforts to settle down, in this unfamiliar and "much too normal place, she finds that she can't quite fit in. Helping her out is Kim Jong-chan, a good-intentioned but bothersome bachelor, who owns a car repair shop. Life plods on. However, fate takes a vicious turn when Shin-ae loses her son in the most horrific way a mother could imagine. She turns to Christianity to relieve the pain in her heart, but when even this is not permitted, she wages a war against God.Written by
An instantly sobering, brutally honest character piece
Lee Chang-dong's exceptional "Secret Sunshine" is the single most emotionally ravaging experience of the year. It is an instantly sobering, brutally honest character piece on the reverberations of loss and a graceful memento mori that resonates with a striking density of thought, yet remains as inscrutable as the emotions it observes. Through its layered naturalism and stunningly trenchant view of small-town dynamics, Lee implicitly deconstructs the traditional Korean melodrama by pulling apart the cinematics of excess and ripping to shreds the arcs that shape its characters and grounds the proceedings into a crushing grind of stoic realism.
"Secret Sunshine" remains an immensely compelling, fluid work throughout its 142-minute runtime. Its bravura first hour is filled to the brim with subtextual insinuations, remarkable foreshadowing and adroit reversals of tone brought about by humanistic capriciousness. Adapted from a short story, Lee infuses the film with his sensitivity for the sublime paradoxes of life, last seen in his transgressively comic and irreverent "Oasis". Understanding how personal revolutions are forged when views of our universe are changed, Lee not only sees the emotional cataclysm of a widow's sorrow through an inquiring scope but also feels the tumultuous existential currents that underpin the film when religion becomes a narrative scapegoat in comprehending the heinousness of the human experience.
Do-yeon Jeon's ("You Are My Sunshine") Best Actress accolade at Cannes in 2007 is well deserved. Her performance as the widow Shin-ae remains an unrelenting enigma. As a character pulled apart by forces beyond her control, the sheer magnificence of this performance is central to the film's turbulent nature. With Jeon essaying one cyclonic upheaval after another, there's a tremulous sense of collapse that the film, to its credit, never approaches. Instead it finds a delicate balance that saps the charged theatricality and subsequent banality from ordinary tragedies and its fallouts. She becomes the centre of the film's universe as well as ours. Filmed in glorious hand-held CinemaScope, the film demolishes the cinematicism of frames and compositions by becoming visually acute just as it is quietly harrowing when the camera never relinquishes its gaze from Shin-ae through times of happiness, guilt and remorse.
Lee captures the details of life in the small, suspicious town of Miryang the awkwardness of communal situations, its uncomfortable silences and its devastations spun out of personal dramas. Shin-ae's interactions with the townsfolk rarely inspires dividends, especially when they are merely done out of obligation to fit in for the sake of her son, Jun (Seon Jung-yeop). The one recurring acquaintance is Jong-chan (Song Kang-ho), a bachelor mechanic of uncertain intentions who helps her en route to Miryang in the film's enchanting open sequence set to a captivating stream of sunlight. Song has situated himself as a comedic anti-hero in South Korea's biggest films but his nuanced, low-key delivery here purports the director's thought process of never having to reveal more than plainly necessary.
If pain is ephemeral, then grief can never truly dissipate. And Lee finds complexity in subsistence. When Shin-ae attempts to head down the path of reconciliation only to be faced again with unimaginable heartbreak, she unsuccessfully employs the fellowship of evangelical Christianity as a foil to her sorrow. But Lee knows better than that when he understands that religion, in the context of the human canvas of strife and misery, is never a simple solution. But Lee never rebukes the essence of religion as he realises the value of salvation for some through a higher power even if it serves a form of denial in others. The scenes in its latter half which deal with religion doesn't allow itself to become aggressively scornful, which is a feat in itself considering how many filmmakers let the momentum of the material take over from what they need to say to be true to its story and characters.
Lee's first film since his call to office as his country's Minister of Culture and Tourism is an uncompromising dissertation on human suffering. In a film so artless and genuine, it arduously reveals that there's nothing as simple as emotional catharsis, just the suppression and abatement of agony. "Secret Sunshine" leaves us with tender mercies pulled out of evanescence, and points towards a profound understanding of despair and faith.
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