Revisiting movies I've recently acquired
(This trailer is ridiculously off the mark when it comes to the tone of the film.)
When I first watched Secret Sunshine, it was with a great deal of expectation as it marked the return of acclaimed writer-director Lee Changdong to filmmaking after a short venture into Korean politics. This anticipation was furthered by accolades heaped upon Jeon Doyeon's performance in the lead role and so perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that I felt slightly disappointed by my first experience. However, coming into the film a second time without those expectations, I got to take in a complex, literary journey through one woman's tragedy and an exploration of how she tries to cope with her loss.
The woman is Lee Shinae (Jeon Doyeon) who moves with her young son, Jun (Sun Jungyup), to the city of Milyang (whose Sino-Corean translates to Secret Sunshine). She moves in the aftermath of the death of her husband, as it was his hometown, so the film is born from tragedy. And you think things might just get better as she opens up a piano shop and encounters a bit of a bumbling nice-guy mechanic Jongchan (Song Kangho). But this isn't a romantic comedy and so the little hope she places in the town is unexpectedly crushed.
As we (and Jongchan, doggedly) follow Shinae and the fate that Milyang has in store for her and Jun, her continuing grief quickly becomes evident. She is a troubled woman trying to grasp onto her own strength to overcome tragedy and we watch as she finds that it's not enough. Secret Sunshine still manages to follow a mostly Aristotelian dramatic arc, but pulls back on the catharsis, which might confound some viewers, especially the ending, but the novelistic symbolism present in the name of Milyang, the discussions of sunshine and the imagery used in the film as well as Shinae's encounter with Christiniaty provide considerable fodder for thought.
Jeon is impressive throughout, especially considering that if the role were any less well played, it would've quickly turned into a rather painful melodrama, but she captures the nuances of Shinae's attempts to deal with her tragedy in layers, giving the role a great deal of complexity and pointing to the continuing unresolved trauma within. Song has a much smaller role in this film than usual, which makes some of his scenes difficult because he has a lot of presence and yet needs to be a supporting character, rather than a central one. Lee directs the film in a classical way. No flashy aesthetics are employed here--the director is clearly trying to let the story tell itself while giving it a lot of space and room for visual symbolism to match the symbolism in the story and created by Shinae.
Despite all the time we spend with Shinae, there is a bit of distance between Shinae and the audience (or at least, me). I think this stems from the nature of the work, because if total empathy were pushed, then we wouldn't be able to see the problems that Shinae has objectively and reflect on it, but it also means that the impact of her many tears and pain is blunted against the audience, thus the surprisingly observant non-cathertic nature of the film's examination of grief and loss. And that would be my one criticism: If Lee and company had brought us a little closer to Shinae, I think the revelation received from then having to step back from her would have been more potent. Secret Sunshine isn't clinical in its distance, but I think a bit more immersion could have enhanced the film.
That said, even after a second viewing, I was still left in thought about the films subjects of grief, loss, coping, self-deception, isolation and faith after the credits rolled and I think I've come to appreciate Secret Sunshine much more as a result. While it might be a bit reserved when it comes to empathy with Shinae, the film still doesn't let her out of the audience's sight and keeps us watching as she desperately tries to cope with her pain. And in that secret sunshine, we find quite the interesting story. 9/10.