Posted on 4/21/10 12:18 AM
Directed by Lee Chang-Dong, Secret Sunshine defines dramatic filmmaking done right in Korea. Widely regarded by general Korean audiences as one of the most "boring" films of 2007, Secret Sunshine is all the proof you need that most Koreans will turn a blind-eye to great filmmaking. Why do I suppose this is? Maybe it's due to the lack of eye-roll inducing dramatic relief that so many Korean films tend to favor, or maybe it's the fact that people aren't punching and kicking their way through the third act, or could it be that there's no off-the-wall-strange reveal at the end (no offence intended to Oldboy). No, what most Korean's probably don't get is the fact that this is how real human emotions are personified on-screen, without any silly distractions added purely for the entertainment value.
Secret Sunshine takes an unflinching look at how one person endures tragedy of unimaginable proportions, the wide spectrum of emotions that a person experiences from that tragedy, and how we need not turn a blind eye to the people that really matter and are there for us when we most need them. The film stars Jeon Do-Yeon in a heart-wrenching performance of a mother who decides to start over in the small town of Miryang (Korean for 'Secret Sunshine) after her husband's death. The film's opening scene is reflective of the picture's sombre tone, yet all the while giving us a feeling that hope is somewhere on the horizon, despite the difficult journey we must take to get to that point.
Jeon Do-Yeon's character, Shin-ae is stranded, her car stalled on the side of the road, her small boy waiting in the passenger seat. A minor hitch in her relocation to her deceased husbands hometown. Come to pick her up and tow her car is the town's mechanic Jong Chan, played by the incomparable (as previously mentioned) Song Kang-Ho. He's an awkward man, taking a liking to Shin-ae instantly and in the most forward manner. He becomes her shadow, following at her feet, willing to do almost anything to please her. Shin-ae quickly dismisses him as a guy who's just looking to get laid, and so do we, unfairly as we learn later on.
We follow Shin-ae on her journey as she attempts to make a new life for her and her son in the town. She opens up a small school to teach piano, and we see the local townspeople react to her in various ways. We're given very good insight into the social structure of small communities like these, the nature of the sewing circle, the gossip that many Koreans (women, mostly) seem to enjoy passing the time with. The social commentary in the film is subtle and never preachy, and is even handled with humour and wit that never clashes with the dramatic tone of the picture.
I really can't say much else without giving away a good chunk of the films plot. I will reveal that we watch as Shin-ae, forced to deal with unforeseen circumstances, embarks on a devastating emotional journey that would thin the reality of hope for anyone. It's rare that an actress can effectively convey an emotional state that is constantly evolving with the given situations, yet Jeon Do-Yeon does so with grace and beauty. Song Kang-Ho's performance is a welcome addition to what could be considered a down right depressing film, but his character adds charm and is really sweet-natured despite us not being able to identify it right away. An extremely poignant and revealing moment is when the emotionally distraught Shin-ae suggests that her and Jong Chan have sex. Jong Chan's reaction is both disquieting and reassuring.
Secret Sushine is a rare gem in Korean cinema. It's a film that dares to take its characters on an emotional journey which is genuine and sobering. It refuses to satisfy the general audience by throwing goofy comedy into the mix to relieve dramatic tension, staying true to tone. It's got all of the qualities of some of the best Oscar winning dramas, with performances that give the best Hollywood actors a run for their money. If you can manage to find a copy of this on DVD somewhere with English subtitles (in a very rare and strange case, the DVD here has no English subtitles, I saw the film at the Pusan International Film Festival), I strongly recommend this wonderful film.