SECRET SUNSHINE (Milyang) A-
South Korea (142 mi) 2007 ‘Scope d: Lee Chang-dong
Premiering at Cannes in 2007, nominated for a Foreign Language Academy Award in 2008, it took nearly 4 years before the film opened in a major U.S. city, distributed by IFC, and when it did, it was shown on HD Video on a small screen, similar to watching it at home, as the size is reduced even further for the ‘Scope aspect ratio, so the top and bottom of the screen were empty. As to why it took so long for the film to arrive, one remains clueless, as it’s clear this is a formidable talent with unique filmmaking credentials. According to his bio at IMDb See full bio, Lee Chang-dong was born in Daegu, considered the most right wing city in South Korea, and was a high school teacher and acclaimed novelist before turning to cinema, directing his first film at the age of 43, but also writing all of his own films. He also worked as his nation’s Minister of Culture for several years between OASIS (2002) and the release of this film, bringing a certain maturity level to his films, similar to French director Claire Denis who also got her start at the age of 40, but also contributing a dense, novelistic style that is uniquely his own. OASIS is unlike any other film I’ve ever seen, as it examines crass societal prejudice through one of the most improbable and disturbing love affairs ever captured on film, where the two lead characters are so mentally and physically challenged that it’s difficult to even watch them onscreen. The audience has no choice except to adjust their perceptions to the subject matter. This film is on more familiar turf, a mother’s grief from a sudden and unexpected loss of her child who is killed in a kidnapping for ransom scheme gone wrong, but it’s just as maddening and heartbreaking, as it takes her on a strange and baffling odyssey to explore possible religious and spiritual avenues for her insurmountable pain. The ease with which this director mixes near slapstick comedy side by side with searing tragedy, while also making astute social comment, is what separates him from the rest, as his range is simply unsurpassed.
Lee never makes it easy for us, nor does he spell things out for us, as he instead takes us on Jeon Do-yeon’s novelesque journey (winner of Best Actress at Cannes), a widow who is moving with her young son to the small town of her recently deceased husband, the subject of poisonous family rumors which has caused her to leave her family behind, which begins with her car breaking down just outside of Milyang, which in Chinese means “Secret Sunshine,” where a hotshot mechanic Song Kang-ho cheerfully welcomes her to the city. Slowly she acclimates herself to life in a small town, where school busses have flowers and optimistic slogans painted on them and where everyone has soon heard about her arrival. She immediately joins a women’s social circle, even as she has little in common with these other women who oftentimes make unflattering comments about her behind her back, but this is what’s done as she assumes a social standing as a piano instructor. It’s interesting to see women drink too much in public as they have a vicious sense of humor and seem to enjoy leaving their husbands behind. Their frivolity recalls the surreal final scene of dancing housewives in Bong Joon-ho’s audacious psychological thriller MOTHER (2009). Somewhat shockingly, this film turns into a heartbreaking missing child saga, where the terrifying jolt of losing her child becomes a stark everyday reality, where her inconsolable anguish leads her to seek comfort in the refuge of Christianity, where her physical expression of grief in the church is unforgettable, expertly shot by the way where in a distant shot that lasts for nearly a minute we only hear the sounds of wailing in the congregation before a close up reveals the source, where smiles just a few minutes ago have led to a flood of tears. Song Kang-ho accompanies her in her religious quest, always a bit late and usually appearing just outside the frame, but he always seems to be there, standing up for her when no one else will, especially when her dysfunctional family comes to her son’s funeral and tries to label her damaged goods. When Jeon was initially blackmailed and had no one else to turn to, there’s a hauntingly empty scene where she pays him a visit at his garage at night where she stands outside gazing in at him where he’s alone, drinking heavily, and singing karaoke at the top of his lungs.
Jeon’s Christian transformation is one for the ages, as she soon becomes the poster child for a born again Christian, assimilating the message and the speech, becoming one of God’s ambassadors on earth spreading the message. She goes to meetings, speaks with the Reverend, joins new social circles, and sings joyous religious songs outside the commuter train stations as bystanders walk by. The film paints an excellent portrait of Korean Christianity, which is always led by that everpresent cheerful smile, and where they have a ready answer for all of the nation’s social ills. This leads to that transcending moment when she’s ready to go to prison to forgive the man who murdered her child. There have been other similar determinant prison sequences, Bresson’s PICKPOCKET (1959) and Kurosawa’s HIGH AND LOW (1963) come to mind, which feature moments of transcendence. But this is something different altogether and is eerie and creepy at the same time, as the prisoner has also found comfort in the salvation of Jesus Christ, so her forgiveness is not really necessary, as he’s already squared it with a higher power. Where does this leave her? - - devastated and crushed, where this turns into a psychologically tormenting grief and anguish of Dostoevskian proportion. Her ultimate clash with religion reaches NASHVILLE (1975) proportions in one of the most perfectly written sequences in the film when she inserts a pop song into an amplified Christian outdoor rally during the middle of a sermon (Kim Chu Ja singing “Gu Jit Mal”). She is rattled with guilt for the inner rage she feels, and for which she can find no comfort or relief, feeling scarred and betrayed for life, as she’s really done nothing wrong, yet she’s condemned to eternal punishment without ever committing a crime. What God, who oversees all things, could allow this to happen? And where is her salvation? What is her road to redemption? She travels into that BREAKING THE WAVES (1996) territory, which is really a descent into human depravity, and it is from this haunting and punishing emptiness that she needs to find herself, from some horrible dark abyss, void of human virtue, a laceratingly lonely and empty place, the cavernous depression of her soul, where she needs to somehow crawl out alive and discover what it means to live again.