The Asian Reporter 19th Annual
Scholarship & Awards Banquet -
AN EMOTIONAL ODYSSEY. Do-yeon Jeon’s performance in Secret Sunshine garnered her Best Actress awards from both the Korean Film Awards and the Cannes Film Festival in 2007. (Photo courtesy of Cinema Service)
From The Asian Reporter, V18, #5 (January 29, 2008), page 20.
In the cold light of Secret Sunshine
Directed by Chang-dong Lee
Produced by CJ Entertainment, Cinema Service, and Pine House Film
Distributed by Cinema Service
By Patrick Galloway
The Letterman Digital Arts Center in San Francisco is the home of Lucasfilm Ltd., Industrial Light & Magic, and LucasArts. Just inside the Lombard Gate of the Presidio, the complex — four buildings surrounded by 17 acres of public parkland — features a 300-seat, state-of-the-art, THX-certified digital theater. It was here that I was invited by the San Francisco Film Society for a screening of the 2007 Korean film Secret Sunshine.
Outside the theater entrance there’s a fountain with a statue of Yoda. In the lobby stand mannequins wearing the original costumes of Darth Vader and Boba Fett. The place is Mecca for Star Wars fans. I’d set my mind to watch a contemporary Asian art film, but suddenly I was 13 again, visions of X-Wing and TIE Fighters soaring through my head. Fortunately, this nostalgia didn’t interfere with my film experience; once in my seat with the lights low, I found myself absorbed in a truly remarkable picture.
There is no set-up in Secret Sunshine, no exposition. You simply hit the ground running with a woman and small child by the side of the road with car trouble. She is Shin-ae (Do-yeon Jeon), recently widowed and on her way to her late husband’s hometown of Milyang with her son Jun (Jeong-yeob Seon). She’s starting over. The mechanic who tows them into town, Kim (Kang-ho Song), is a good-natured schlub who becomes smitten with Shin-ae (to her frequent annoyance — as her brother tells him early on, he’s not her type). Shin-ae sets up shop as a piano teacher and begins to find her way in Milyang (which she tells Kim means "secret sunshine" in Chinese) when things take a dark turn, forcing her into emotional turmoil.
The remainder of the film’s two hours and 20 minutes becomes an odyssey of grief as Shin-ae feels her way through her own version of the grieving stages — in this case isolation, depression, bargaining (with God), anger, and more depression. There is much weeping and wailing as Shin-ae walks the fine line between emotional upheaval and mental breakdown. It’s unclear at film’s end whether she makes it to the final stage, acceptance. You’ll have to decide for yourself if that’s where things are headed.
Director Chang-dong Lee (Green Fish, Peppermint Candy) takes a hands-off approach to the narrative. The structure of Secret Sunshine is open, verging on cinéma vérité; you don’t watch it so much as move through it. The film is less a story than an extreme emotional experience, a life passage. Opportunities for plot twists and character revelations pass right by, the lack of such story elements confounding expectation.
Much of the film is concerned with the evangelical Christian movement currently accelerating in South Korea. Shin-ae becomes born again, but tragedy devastates her new faith, turning her devotion to hatred of her former church. (Her attempted seduction of a church official provides some unexpected comic relief.)
Do-yeon Jeon’s performance is astonishing, garnering her Best Actress awards from both the Korean Film Awards and the Cannes Film Festival in 2007. According to Director Lee, Jeon had never attempted a role of such harrowing emotional depth, and the process was quite difficult for her. The always-great Kang-ho Song reportedly had trouble with his character’s regional accent as well. But out of these difficulties was born a film of devastating impact.