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March 01, 2011

Secret Sunshine

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Milyang
Lee Chang-dong - 2007
Sundance Selects 35mm Film

My first time in a theater this year was Lee Chang-dong's film, getting a theatrical release three years after making the rounds of the festival circuit. To some extent I am not surprised that distributors might not have been chomping at the bit for Secret Sunshine. It's not that it's a bad film, but that unlike Lee's other films that I've seen, the sense of catharsis is, if not absent, at least more muted. Still, like Lee's other films, it is worth seeing.

The film is about a young widow, Shin-ae, who moves to the town of Milyang, outside of Busan, with her young son. This is where her husband was from and a place he expressed nostalgia for. That apparently there are no family members or friends of her late husband doesn't seem to matter. Instead, it is the idea of starting a new life away from Seoul. What happens to Shin-ae is additional tragedy in a town where she alternates between feeling out of place, and acting in ways that force her emotional distance with others.

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There is a scene in which Shin-ae's elementary school age son is snoring while pretending to be asleep, according to Shin-ae, as a way of imitating his father. In a later scene, Shin-ae is seen snoring - is it also because she misses her husband, or because she misses her son? The town of Milyang, from the Chinese words meaning "secret sunshine" is a place where Shin-ae wants to call home, only to find that family dynamics around her are in a state of flux. The upstanding teacher with a delinquent daughter also turns out to be the worse kind of criminal. The pharmacist, whose wife is ready to share the Gospel with all who will listen, is easily led down the path of temptation. The most stable character is an overly friendly auto mechanic who doggedly pursues Shin-ae no matter how frequently she turns him down.

Some of the other reviews I've read emphasize Shin-ae's religious conversion, her joining an evangelical group of Christians. What Lee seems to be more interested in, within the context of the entire film, is exploring how people choose to fill absences, real or perceived, in their lives. In this regard, there is no interest in Christianity as a theological concept, but rather as a means used for people to give themselves a sense of community as well as an external means of providing a sense of meaning out the otherwise random events of life. Shin-ae comes to town to act as a piano teacher. In a performance in her living room, Shin-ae is shown to stumble at the keyboard, having lost most of own piano playing skills. Without her musicianship, Shin-ae had her husband and son. Without either her husband or son, Shin-ae essentially is left grasping at straws, with little reason to continue with her own life.

As Shin-ae, Jeon Do-yeon plays a woman who constantly displays her emotions, yet what the actress does not do is overplay those emotions. A lesser actress would transform the expressions of rage and anger into something more melodramatic. As the would be suitor, Song Kang-ho is like the buoy that essentially stays in place whether Shin-ae's oceans of feelings are placid or tidal waves. In some fluke of coincidence, I might be able to Jeon twice this week in Denver as the new version of The Housemaid has also opened. Song starred in The Good, the Bad and the Weird and Thirst. Jeon and Song have played characters who might might be more rightly described as extraordinary, and have individually starred in several of the most high profile Korean movies of recent years. Secret Sunshine is not as easy a film to embrace as Oasis or Poetry, but it offers quiet rewards in this story of a woman coming to terms with a life that offers no easy resolutions.

Posted by peter at March 1, 2011 08:45 AM