"I won't lose to you!... Never!... I won't let you beat me!"
Following the death of her husband in a car accident Lee Shin-ae (Jeon Do-yeon) relocates to the small South Korean town of Miryang - which translates from Chinese as secret sunshine - with her son Jun to work as a piano teacher. Quickly accepted by the local community she is pushed to join the town's religious group but having no faith or belief in God she repeatedly refuses until another tragedy strikes her life, at which point she has an epiphany and turns to religion in the hope of finding comfort and some understanding of the terrible things which have happened to her. Her new found faith in God and the church is, however, short lived and as subsequent events lead her to believe that God has betrayed her she decides to wage war against Him...
Secret Sunshine, the fourth film from director Lee Chang-dong (Green Fish, Oasis and Peppermint Candy), is both a study of grief, as seen in the aftermath of the tragedies faced by Shin-ae, and a dissection of faith and religion. Like his previous work the film doesn't shy away from showing the disintegration of a human being as a result of uncontrollable events and the actions those events illicit but the portrayal of Shin-ae in Secret Sunshine is much more sympathetic than the main character treatment in either Green Fish or Peppermint Candy.
Shin-ae is an outsider whose ideals and morals are very different to the people she encounters in Miryang. The women of this small town tend not to be overly outspoken (often only discussing their opinions while gossiping behind people's backs) and Shin-ae's tendency to speak her mind doesn't initially sit too well with them. Having met mechanic Jong-chan (Song Kang-ho) as a result of her car breaking down on the way to the town she allows him limited access to her life which serves to ease her settling in and her acceptance by the local community and it isn't long before both the local women and Jong-chan begin their attempts to get closer to her.
Jong-chan is clearly smitten with Shin-ae from their first meeting, and does everything he can to become romantically involved with her, he does also truly want to help her and gradually takes on the role of the the steadying influence by her side (or more accurately a few paces behind her), even if his inept amorous advances are not wholly welcome.
Shin-ae is forced by desperation to try to embrace the townspeople's ideals in an attempt to finally get her life into some semblance of order but each avenue which she tries to take turns out to be a cul-de-sac, leaving her running in circles, alone and repeatedly stripped of more and more fragments of her quickly dwindling piece of mind.
It could be said that her eventual attacks against God are petty compared to what she has been put through but she is only human after all and as such her actions are all that she's capable of and feel all the more desperate as a result. The conclusion of Shin-ae's journey is much less cut and dried than any of Lee Chang-dong's earlier films but the final scenes speak volumes to her realisation that counting on herself is all that she can do and that whatever her situation Jong-chan will be there, a couple of paces behind, waiting for a chance to be with her.
Lee Chang-dong's style of writing and directing regularly uses mundane and seemingly inconsequential occurrences to foreshadow cataclysmic events and is incredibly adept at creating an oppressiveness from them without ever telegraphing the outcome of a situation. His discussion of religion takes no sides and successfully shows how each of the characters' attitude to faith is largely dependent on their situation and outlook on life. Secret Sunshine is not a happy film by any means but the direction ensures that the story grips from beginning to end with a consistent pace and constant building of tension.
Cast & Crew:
Jeon Do-yeon's performance is incredible and easily her best work to date. She received the 2008 Palme D'Or award at the Cannes Film Festival for her portrayal of Shin-ae, wowing critics and audiences alike, and her statements in subsequent interviews that playing the role affected her emotionally for some time really ring true when watching her phenomenal performance. Song Kang-ho could be said to be as big a star as Jeon Do-yeon but plays a much smaller, secondary role here - his character adding some gentle humour to the dark proceedings and a level head to balance the disintegrating mind of Shin-ae. That said his portrayal is note perfect and he never oversteps the mark or overshadows the character of Shin-ae.
Secret Sunshine is a worthy addition to the C.V of Lee Chang-dong and further cements his position as one of the most innovative and talented directors in South Korean cinema. It also continues the tradition of South Korean films raising the bar by which all other countries must measure themselves. A 'must see' for all film lovers.
Actors: Jeon Do-yeon, Song Kang-ho
Directors: Lee Chang-dong
Studio: CJ Entertainment
The DVD used for this review is the Korean Region 3 release which has a crisp, clear anamorphic transfer presented in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The sound is expansive and the DVD has excellent subtitles.
Subtitles: English, Korean
Country of Origin: South Korea
Picture Format: NTSC
Disc Format(s): DVD
Region Code: 3
Publisher: CJ Entertainment
2-Disc Special Edition DVD Contents:
Commentary with Director Lee Chang-dong, Jeon Do-yeon, Song Kang-ho, Film Critic Lee Dong-jin
Commentary with Film Critics Kim Young-jin and Hur Moon-young
Making Of Secret Sunshine: Narrated by Jeon Do-yeon
The People Of Miryang: Interviews of Supporting Cast Members
"A Communion" - Mini-documentary