Theme Tuesday - Lee Changdong - Secret Sunshine
For November 2018, I will be exploring and revisiting the works of one of South Korea’s greatest cinematic storytellers - Lee Changdong - which will culminate in an assessment of his latest film, Burning.
(Secret Sunshine was a Canon entry back in February. My piece on the film is reprinted below.)
I was not looking forward to rewatching this film. Not that this is a bad film. It’s just that Lee Chang-dong’s films are emotional ordeals. Not only do the characters in his films go through traumatizing events, but we are there to empathize with them seemingly every agonizing step of the way.
Jeon Do-Yeon as Lee Shin-Ae suffers grief that would move mountains. I am not susceptible to crying in films, but that doesn’t mean that films do not move me. The first time I watched this film, my heart felt like it was going to exit my throat for most of the film, though it’s important to note that the film is not unrelenting. There are moments of humor and levity, but they’re few and far between. Often they are to remind us that Shin-Ae is not usually an emotional mess.
Shin-Ae moves to a new rural town with her young son in tow. Her husband has just died, and she wants to raise her son in his father’s hometown. She is very definitely an outsider, as even an innocent recommendation to a local shop owner is treated as an unspeakable offense. She finds a sympathetic ear in Song Kang-ho’s Kim Jong-Chan, who clearly has a romantic interest in her. What starts out as a fish out of water story soon becomes a harrowing journey for answers and redemption when her son gets abducted.
On a second viewing, I noticed how claustrophobic the town of Miryang (which means secret sunshine) was. Even though Lee Chang-dong chooses to set his film mostly in the bright sunshine and using lots of beautiful natural light, the town feels oppressive mainly because of the people around her. People who are grieving need time and space to do so but Shin-Ae does not get time to do so, as the people around her try to fix her and solve her problems.
To deal with her loss, Shin-Ae turns to the Christian religion after she has been worn down by her grief and a rather zealous deaconess. It clearly has a positive impact on her at first. We see her go to a church service, and then a bit later we see her bawling at the top of her lungs. More importantly, we do not hear much of the pastor’s sermon, since it probably wasn’t the content that mattered, just the opportunity for catharsis.
The joy that she gets from having found God is short-lived. When she makes a visit to the abductor, who has been jailed, she learns that he too has found God and he has been absolved of his sins. It is too much for her. She cannot comprehend how a man who has done such evil against her could receive the same level of peace and forgiveness that she had supposedly found for herself. What’s fascinating is that she does not abandon her belief in God. Instead she goes to war with Him. She wants to prove that He is not all-powerful. Ironically, this is when some of the more comic scenes occur. Like when she interrupts an outdoor service by playing a song called “Lies” over the loudspeaker. Funnily enough, many of the worshipers don’t notice the change in music and continue with their devotions. In a sad yet darkly funny sequence, she also tempts the husband of one of the deaconess to no avail.
Jeon Do-Yeon dominates this picture. She was only the second Asian actress to win an award at the Cannes film festival, and I think this is one of the best dramatic performances I have seen in modern cinema, from a man or woman. It’s not just that when she cries it makes us deeply uncomfortable or resounds deeply in our souls. It’s because her character is so fully developed and recognizably her no matter what. She can be playful and funny with her child. She can also be petulant. We still recognize her essentially mischievous spirit even in the provocative stunts she pulls to defy God. She and Lee work together to provide a complex and ultimately sympathetic picture of a very flawed woman acting in a very understandable way.
I think a key to Shin-Ae’s portrayal lies in the portrayal of other characters. Lee masterfully dedicates much of the film to setting up and developing arcs for the other characters as well. We see the shop owner that she inadvertently offended go from gossip to friend to sympathetic ear. Shin-Ae observes a teenage girl get into trouble and get mixed with the wrong people, yet she does not do anything about it. Most interestingly, Song Kang-ho’s character Jong-Chan goes from coarse car mechanic to dedicated churchgoer. His story is the comic inverse of Shin-Ae’s. He never professes any deep revelations or a profound relationship with God, yet his life has undoubtedly been changed because of Shin-Ae’s influence, though not in the way that he expected.
Perhaps these stories are reminders that no one is completely alone in society. Shin-Ae’s grief is an incredibly personal and, by its nature, an incredibly selfish one. To be selfish in this case is not a negative attribute; it is simply what all human beings are, some more so than others. Shin-ae’s main struggle is that she cannot comprehend why the world does not change around her to reflect her inner turmoil. People go on with their lives, grow and often become better in the process, but she sees this as God slapping her in the face.
Lee Chang-dong likes to make his audience uncomfortable. Not in the cold, condescending way that Michael Haneke has been guilty of on many occasions, but in a way that forces us to confront our own guilty secrets and prejudices. He did it in Oasis, in which a mentally disabled man develops a twisted, romantic relationship with a woman with cerebral palsy. Both are looked down on by society; their very presence makes people uncomfortable. In Secret Sunshine, Lee also knows that grief makes people uncomfortable and that a common response to it is to try to fix it, even when it’s not your business. When the public becomes private, the consequences can spiral out of your control and can be personally devastating. After her ordeal, Shin-Ae has to learn to stop looking to and crying out to the heavens, which she does often in this film, and to find solace in the life that she has, even if it is as ordinary and humble as the patch of earth that the film ends on.