SECRET SUNSHINE (2007)
Lee Chang-dong produces a powerful meditation on the capricious effects of grief when a widow seeks a fresh start in her deceased husband’s birth town
The master of the emotional drama, the concept of grief offers Lee Chang-dong an expansive canvas to colour the shades of agony that loss provides.
Secret Sunshine, titled Miryang in Korea after the host town of this story, grabs not only the big ticket of grief. It also staggers, slump-shouldered, into further concepts of faith and mental health.
Such an assignment of emotional rollercoaster-riding needed to be anchored by a believable and empathy-inducing lead. Here we see Jeon Do-yeon produce a career best performance, enough to make her the first and only Korean ever to win Best Actress at Cannes, as the much-tortured Shin-ae.
Shin-ae has upped-sticks from Seoul with her son Jun (Seon Jeong-Yeop) after the death of her husband in a car accident. Heading to Miryang, her husband’s birth town, the pair seek a fresh start from the memories of loss in Seoul.
She soon meets local mechanic Kim Jong-chan (Song Kang-ho – Memories of Murder, The Host), who attempts to pursue her as she establishes her piano teaching business.
However, the true battle for Shin-ae is getting over grief. We often comprehend the concept of grief as something placed into neat brackets of development. As if all people transverse through these stages like a generic path.
Instead grief is portrayed as having the ability to send the sufferer off in new and unexpected trajectories.
Shin-ae is instantly courted by religious converters, at first, somewhat strangely, in her local pharmacy. She will eventually dabble with faith. The audience view on such matters will likely inform their interpretation of how successful this proves. Overall, her brief solace through religion exposes it as a mere short-term crutch, not able to answer the bigger questions over her pain.
The concept of that great healer, time, and eventually medical intervention through metal health support are more kindly portrayed here.
We also witness Jong-chan's continued pursuit of Shin-ae, offering another carnation of the church go-er – the one doing it for personal gain, in this case getting closer to a potential love interest.
Like much of Director Lee’s filmography, there is a subtlety that makes the emotional pain of the characters seem even rawer and more real.
The fascinating concept of Secret Sunshine is that it does not follow a more traditional narrative arch of ‘set-up’, ‘confrontation’, then ‘resolution’. We are introduced to Shin-ae after the major event of her husband’s death, but we leave it without fully comprehending the path of her future.
What the format succeeds in achieving is delivering surprising emotional blows, often not allowing the audience to recover from one before another arrives in earnest.
Shin-ae needs to muster unthinkable strength to survive her ordeal. To achieve this, she sometimes leans on superficial means of support, other times she simply cannot cope and everything pours fourth.
Devastatingly powerful, Lee Chang-dong’s has mustered such a candid view of grief you take on the painful battle yourself.