[Warning -- contains spoilers]
I have spent nearly two weeks tangling with Secret Sunshine, Korean director Lee Chang-dong's 2007 film only released in the United States a mere month ago. Restructures, deletions, whole rewrites, abandonments, I've done 'em all for this film. Writing about Secret Sunshine is damn near impossible for two primary reasons: one, it is such an emotional work that focusing on the nuances of the direction offers only brief respite from the hairy issue of getting into its devastating power in any way that honors the film's resonance. Two, Lee Chang-dong himself offers so few comparisons to other directors that one cannot even fall back on the act of placing his work within the context of those who preceded him.
A famed novelist before turning his attention to film -- his mastery of both earned him the position of South Korea's minister of culture and tourism for a year -- Lee brings a clear literary streak to his work. Too often, the meaning of titles can get lost in translation, but the director ensures that the English version of his film's titles has any many interpretations as the original Korean. "Secret Sunshine" is the literal translation of the town of Miryang, the hometown of Lee Shin-tae's (Jeon Do-yeon) deceased husband. Shin-tae and her young son, Jun, move there in an attempt to rebuild their lives after the husband's death.
Befitting the town's name, the residents of Miryang subject Shin-ae to an alternately cool and invasive reception, despite the high population of Christians. Some pry into her tragic past, while others give her emptily pleasant greetings that communicate a complete apathy, even a mild communal distrust, of the woman. Even the one person who acts unfailingly kind toward them, a mechanic named Kim (Song Kang-ho), has an edge underneath his Good Samaritan vibe, a clear and unmistakable longing for Shin-ae that bypasses any respect for her emotional tumult. There are flecks of sunshine around town, but they're as hidden as one might guess.
Shin-ae herself conveys some of that muddied brightness. Her methods of coping with her husband's death leave her slightly cold and forthright in her own way, such as her direct criticism of one woman's shop: Shin-tae tells the pleasant, friendly woman that the color scheme of her shop is too dour and repels customers, to the shopkeeper's mild but clear annoyance. The oddest coping mechanism must be the disturbing games Shin-tae and Jun play with each other, with Jun pretending to be lost or dead as the mother cries for him, only for Jun to then spring out as if playing a demented game of hide and seek.
Lee spends the first act laying out a fish-out-of-water dramedy that wouldn't look so out of place at the multiplex: a story of a woman trying to move on from tragedy and possibly entering into a relationship with a dorky, overbearing but well-meaning goof. Then, the director pulls the rug from underneath the audience. A phone rings when Shin-ae cannot find Jun, and as the voice on the other end says something we cannot hear, the mild concern in Jeon's face turns blank with failed recognition, then quivering with panic. She promises to give the person all the money she has, and begs to hear Jun's voice, but the person on the other end clearly does not comply. Suddenly, the quiet awkwardness of Jeon's performance to that point shifts to shaking, wracking devastation. She can barely even get herself through withdrawing her money, and when the kidnapper does not hold up his end of the bargain, when police bring her to a drained reservoir, a stone sinks somewhere in the stomach, dragging the organ down to the toes.
For the remaining hour and a half, Secret Sunshine becomes a far more direct film on the nature of grief and coping than it had been before. Lee entrusts the entire film to his actors, especially Jeon, who puts forward such a crippling, pure and BIG performance that her win at Cannes three years ago can only be met with the sort of nod that sarcastically says, "Well no shit." Rare is the film that shows someone vomit from the outpouring of bilious rage and agony, and even rarer is the performer who commits so deeply that one suspects he or she actually did throw up from expelling all that sorrow. She and Lee understand that grief has no linearity, that the five stages can only correspond to the types of behavior pain engenders, not the true progression of feeling. At Jun's funeral, Shin-ae cannot cry despite her breakdown before learning of her son's fate. Her hollowed-out grief even inspires the rage of the boy's paternal grandmother, who gets to sob out her grief and recuperate, a luxury Shin-ae does not enjoy.
In an attempt to expel her pain, Shin-ae first hardens against others, specifically the pupils of her piano school, whom she berates for not practicing despite their age and inexperience. But it is the pharmacist who earlier tried to hand Shin-ae a Christian pamphlet who claims to hold the key to the woman's relief. Still dead-eyed and zombie-like, Shin-ae wanders into a prayer meeting, and she loses it. As the pastor orates, her piercing, stop-start, phlegmatic wails drown his words, and when the man places a comforting hand on her head, Shin-ae looks willing to devote herself to any god so long as it takes away the pain.
Amazingly, Lee manages to compound this realist melodrama yet again with this development. Some might view the director's approach to religion as a darkly comic one, but while he does imbue the film with satire, Lee's view of Christianity is less directed at the religion than the reason some people need it. Shin-ae accepts that God allowed her child and husband to die because a reason for the madness, however vague and unsatisfactory, is better than nihilistic meaninglessness. She devotes herself fully to Christ, though her calmed demeanor cannot hide the swirl of sorrow and anguish churning behind her eyes, a rising tide she attempts to dam with recitations of the Lord's prayer. Ironically, Shin-ae finds herself believing in God's love only because of actions that no caring overseer could force someone to handle, but Lee not once judges this sentiment.
But his most critical view of religion comes when Shin-ae comes up with a plan to move beyond the tragedy: she will go to prison and forgive the man who killed her son. It is the ultimate display of Christian ethic, but some, including Kim, see through it: why can't she just forgive him here? Is it necessary to go to the prison and confront the man first? Shin-ae only says that she must, but the unspoken hypocrisy of her sympathy is the fact that she wants to go there and see a man hobbled by guilt and left sleepless and haggard by imprisonment. She wants to see a wracked, humiliated man and transfer her pain onto him, giving herself the satisfaction of overcoming her ordeal. When she gets in the room with the man, however, he enters with a creepy, too-sincere smile that a man suffering could not plaster on his face, and he responds to her comments about converting him with the news that he already found God within the prison walls. If God exists, He exists to offer humanity the path to His kingdom, but Shin-ae wanted, needed, to show the murderer where the road starts. For him to greet her as a fresh-faced born-again whose guilt has been purged by the promise of salvation denies her everything. Even the sincere apology the killer lacks any emotion; like all born-again Christians, he views the sin of a prior life as something he's surpassed. God not only took her family, he took the one way she might free herself from the pain it caused. Is it any wonder, then, that Shin-ae faints from defeat when she walks out of the penitentiary?
A more acerbic director might have played up this angle of the film more, mocked the notion that prisoners who find Jesus or Mohammad do so not only to look good for parole hearings but to absolve themselves of remorse. But Lee sidesteps any Buñuel-esque pursuit of the Church in favor of folding that rage and impotent catharsis back onto Shin-ae's pain as if forging the blade with which Shin-ae might kill herself. Lee's camera counterbalances the depths to which Jeon mines misery; one gets the sense the director does not remotely look down upon melodrama but cannot bring himself to cast Shin-ae's pain in any kind of exaggerated tone lest he undermine the pure, raw nature of her grief. When policemen take the woman to her son's body, Lee hangs back in extreme long shot as Jeon moves with almost robotic stiffness, the spatial distance between her and the camera avoiding histrionics for the grim, glacial mounting of heartbreak. For the most part, Lee always films his actress no closer than a medium shot, allowing the sheer breadth and range of the pain she depicts the room to spread; were she in close-up, the audience simply could not take that direct a channeling of emotion.
Lee also offsets the power of Jeon's performance with the lighter tone of Song's role. One of Kim's friends says he's "more comedy than melodrama," and that applies to his contextual application in the movie. From the moment he appears in the film to tow Shin-ae's car, Song sports a goofy smile that cannot hold back his desire for the woman. That smile does not fade from his face until Shin-ae's brother comes to town and offers a passing remark that Kim is not his sister's type. When Shin-ae starts attending church, Kim does too, a pathetic, creepy and utterly sad gesture that reveals how deeply in love he is with someone who doesn't care about him. His wretched attempts to win Shin-ae's heart, a Pyrrhic victory for something so shriveled and porous, are darkly humorous, not adding so much relief as less-wrenching material. Only when Shin-ae seduces the husband of the pharmacist who converted her and crazily mocks Kim's feelings for her does he finally react.
No one in Secret Sunshine is fully saint nor sinner, not even Shin-ae, who carries too much of an edge to be a wholly pure martyr. It can be humorous in the most unexpected of places -- such as Shin-ae's car failing to start when she's ordered to make the ransom payment, leading to a moment of panic until the woman realizes she's in drive and shifts down to neutral to turn on the engine -- and heartbreaking nearly all the time after its first act switcheroo. The film is very much a melodrama, but an endothermic one; it implodes rather than explodes. The ending brings the film back to the evocation Lee worked on with the title: it exists within the same abyss as the rest of the film, yet even in darkness, there is light. It may be on the horizon, may indeed never be attainable, but it's there, and one would be better served quixotically chasing it than wallowing in the night.