Secret Sunshine is a great reason to love the Criterion Collection. Missed it when it came out…would have forgotten about it completely if it wasn’t released by the CC. Korean director Chang-dong Lee, whose recent film Poetry made some film festival waves has a really interesting entry into the kidnapping genre. Though to call Secret Sunshine a genre film would be a huge mistake.
Shin-ae (Do-yeon Jeon) and her son Jun (Jung-yeop Seon) move to the small town of Milyang – also known as “Secret Sunshine.” Shin-ae is a single mother. She’s quiet, maybe a bit elitist, and is hoping to start a new life. With the help of Jong Chan (Kang-ho Song from The Host, Memories of Murder and a bunch of other great Korean flicks), a local mechanic who also happens to be helplessly and hopelessly head-over-heels for Shin-ae, she starts a modest piano teaching business and gradually reveals plans to purchase land. All is going well…until Jun is kidnapped.
What makes Secret Sunshine so successful – or one of the many reasons it’s so successful – is its structure and pacing. A few SPOILERS below:
The first act, up until the kidnapping, plays as small-town drama. The pacing is deliberate but not plodding. Much is made of mother-son interaction. The kidnapping itself is frenetic, dark, and anything but deliberate. It’s desperate. But it’s also very brief. The entire scene and “investigation” (in “” because there really is no investigation) takes about 10 minutes of a 140 minute film. So here we are, at about, I don’t know, minute 40, and Shin-ae’s son has already been kidnapped, found dead, the kidnapper arrested and jailed. Where do you go from here? What do you do for the next 100 minutes? That’s what makes this such a compelling film.
From small-town drama to kidnapping film to…grief. Shin-ae grieves. She’s useless. She mopes. She cries. And then she goes to church, breaks down (in a pretty great scene) and becomes a born-again Christian. From small-town drama to kidnapping film to grief to…spiritual acceptance. Shin-ae smiles all the time. She seems past Jun’s death. She even tolerates Jong’s advances. She attends church regularly. She hosts prayer meetings. And she decides to visit the prison to forgive – as any good Christian would do – her son’s killer. This turns out to be the best scene in the film.
Face-to-face (with Jong behind her) with the man who killed her son, she learns that he too has found god. That he no longer feels guilt. That he has accepted his situation. And that he’s happy. It’s all too much to take. She breaks down. Rejects everything. Becomes almost feral.
From small-town drama to kidnapping film to grief to spiritual acceptance to wild rejection. Shin-ae basically goes crazy. She throws a brick at a window outside of a prayer meeting (which is, in fact, being held for her). She seduces the husband of a fellow church-goer. She maniacally tries to sleep with Jong. She staggers through the streets against oncoming traffic. Until…we jump forward in time and she is released from a mental ward, goes to get her hair cut, and comes face-to-face with her son’s killer’s daughter. And, faced with the option of indirect forgiveness, of friendship, of silence, she abruptly gets up from the barber’s chair and leaves.
Small-town drama to kidnapping film to grief to spiritual acceptance to wild rejection to treatment to resentment? Maybe something like that. However you decide to frame all of these segments, one thing is true. This film is unique, and each structural sequence feels simultaneously lifted from another film and fluidly part of the film at hand. Much credit is due to the script, of course, but director Lee’s handling of the subject matter is also critical.
His aesthetics change slightly from sequence to sequence, but Secret Sunshine never loses a cohesive feel. Take, for instance, the difference not only in the choices by Do-yeon Jeon, but also in the way that Lee shoots the scenes of Shin-ae grieving against those after she is “born again”. In the former we’re treated to several long takes, often static, of just the actress. Jong lurks in the frame, but usually behind her or at a distance. Once she is born again, not only is everything literally brighter, but the pacing quickens a bit. Everything, frame-wise, feels a bit more balanced. Lee’s mastery not only of the overall subject matter, but of the individual sections from an emotional standpoint keep the film constantly moving forward despite it’s relatively long run time.