Secret Sunshine (2007: South Korean Lee Chang-don’s Fourth Feature

By Patrick Z. McGavin

Cannes Film Festival 2007 (Competition)–The beautiful, lithe South Korean actress Jeon Do-yeon has a revealing and suggestive face that breaks sorrowfully, distinctively between comedy and tragedy. She gives a startling and vivid performance as a woman seeking salvation in the aftermath of unfathomable tragedy in Secret Sunshine, the fourth, most ambitious feature by director Lee Chang-dong.

Lee (Peppermint Candy, Oasis) is not exactly an unknown, though this emotionally attuned and sharp feature rates as a significant find marred only by occasional instances of lost focus or repetitive characterization. The actress plays Lee shin-ae, a woman in her late thirties introduced driving into the parochial southern town of Miryang with her playful and restless young son, Jun (Seon Jeong-yeob). She is mourning her husband, recently killed from injuries sustained in a car accident, and she has repatriated to his home town to begin life anew.

The breakdown of her car is a harsh foreboding of the difficulty she is about to endure. A former classically trained pianist who gave up her career in order to marry, Lee opens a storefront piano school for teaching children. She incurs all sorts of nasty rumors and almost hateful speculation about her potential business transactions. Even worse she draws the suspicion of a well-connected local pharmacist who is clearly flummoxed after Lee informs her about her spiritual agnosticism.

Reconnecting with her brother Min-gi (Kim Yeon-jae), Lee also acquires a persistent male admirer in the comic form of Kim (Song Gang-ho), an auto mechanic who helped her after her car broke down. Her elaborate effort to assimilate into her new life is demolished when Jun is kidnapped after his mother left him to his own devices during her night out with some new friends. Her frantic effort to secure the ransom and ensure the boys freedom ends tragically with the discovery of his corpse in a local riverbed.

The boys death occasions the first of several radical and powerful conversions Lee undergoes. She is reduced to a catatonic state by the news, admonished by her mother for her inability to show emotion at the boys funeral. Reluctantly agreeing to attend a Christian revival meeting, Lee finally comes undone, letting out a shrieking and violently unsettling wail of emotions at the service. The filmmaker Lee privileges the emotional turmoil of the moment, and he never sentimentalizes pain or loss. He makes vivid the sense of the boys absence, his mother subjected to hallucinations, believing other children she sees are her boy resurrected.

Lee is suddenly immersed into the local Korean Christian movement, believing herself born again and suddenly evolved into a full scale proselytiser. Her charged prison encounter with the murderer (Jo Yeong-jin) of her son signals another radical emotional and physical transformation in Lee where she denounces the principles and ideas of the Christian movement and rebukes what she images as its piety, repression and hypocrisy. In one of the most electric scenes in the film, she invades an outdoor revival meeting and tampers with the public address system, inserting a CD that drowns out the speaker with cries of Lies, lies, lies.

Lees disavowal of the religious order signals another dark reversal of fortune as her hold on reality becomes more tenuous by the day. She commits acts of petty larceny and loses all sense of emotional balance, her life spiralling downward into mask of pain, torment and confusion.

These are private, sharp moments, and they are given a tremendous clarity and emotional force through Jeon’s exquisitely detailed and vocally shaded work. Physically she is fine-boned, though she also has an off-hand comic style, evident in the nervous way she says sex during a conversation with her male admirer. She allows a complex emotional connection to the accumulation of tense, horrifying conditions.

Jeon’s guilt and breakdown takes on many forms, physically the way she refuses a hair or emotionally in her stunted interaction with Song. Handsomely photographed in widescreen by Jo Yong-gyu, the director frequently Lee isolates Jeon in shallow space against hard and unforgiving objects that iterates her eroding position. It is furthermore a sharp, abject indication of her privation and pain. The shooting style is unadorned, relaxed and colourful that moves freely and open from light to dark, suggesting life as a constantly mobile state where happiness and ecstasy share constant space with disruption and loss.

Riding the break out hit that was The Host, Song is a natural screen presence with excellent timing and appears wholly unafraid to subject himself to humiliation. His love for Lee remains forever unrequited, though his presence is a painfully funny reminder that laughter and bemusement always hover around, almost in spite of the circumstances. At the same time, the director Lee could have sharpened their exchanges, given his tendency to argue his points rather than dramatize them.

Director Lee has reportedly been subject to criticism over his social portrait of Koreas Christian movement, angering some who find the portrait full of caricature. His significant achievement, abetted by his actress, is showing all manner of consequence on a woman who is desperate to achieve grace. The work is not mystical, rooted instead in a very firm belief that her suffering is a natural outgrowth of her deliverance. In that regard, it plays like a South Korean Breaking the Waves, touching on all manner of how violence contributes to breakdown and potential madness.

The ambiguous ending is entirely deserved, part of a larger work that finds an emerging director refining his craft, and a wonderful and brilliant actress providing the purest, most direct means to mediate tragedy and its discontent.