Criterion // 2007 // 142 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // August 23rd, 2011
A stirring and unpredictable work examining grief and deliverance.
"How can you believe in something you can't see. I don't even believe in some things I can see."
Shin-ae (Jeon Do-yeon, The Housemaid) and her young son Jun (Seon Jung-yeop) have just moved to Miryang, her late husband's hometown. The people of Miryang are generally welcoming and kind-hearted, particularly the slightly love struck Jong Chan (Song Kang-ho, The Host). Slowly but surely, Shin-ae begins to adapt to her new surroundings and begins making friends. However, after a series of unexpected and horrifying developments, Shin-ae's life goes into a rapid tailspin.
If the plot description I've provided sounds a little vague, it's because Secret Sunshine's construction puts reviewers such as myself in a difficult position. It holds off on delivering the film's pivotal plot point long enough to make it a spoiler if I were to reveal what happens in this review, and yet that moment more or less defines where the film goes for the remaining two-thirds of its running time. As such, I feel obliged to proceed with caution for the remainder of the review. Here's the main thing you need to know: Secret Sunshine is a superb film and well worth your time.
Lee Chang-dong's nuanced drama contains numerous moments of unflinching darkness, but it's remarkable to observe the manner in which the film refuses to allow its darker moments overwhelm the mood. The obvious approach would have been to shroud this story in gloom, but Chang-dong maintains a fascinating balance between bleakness and warmth. The film never loses its gentle sense of humor, its glimmer of hope or its understated tenderness; yet it firmly refuses to gloss over its moments of wrenching despair. To be sure, the contrast is an impressive tonal feat of filmmaking, but it's also a quietly perfect mirror of the themes Secret Sunshine addresses. The film is a portrait of the struggle for grace during tragedy, and an examination of the lengths we are willing to go to counteract the mighty forces of grief.
Miryang is largely a Christian town, and it doesn't take long before someone asks Shin-ae whether she's accepted Jesus Christ as her savior. Shin-ae is an atheist (or at least an agonistic) and politely turns down invitations to church on a regular basis, but her when tragedy strikes she finds her belief in disbelief more than a little shaken. She attends a church service, is intensely moved by the experience and impulsively surrenders her life to God.
American viewers may be surprised to discover what a familiar brand of faith is on display throughout the film. The church services are nearly identical to what you'll find in many protestant churches in the United States, from the familiar praise songs ("You Are My All in All") to the earnest piano music used during the alter call to the distinctively amiable atmosphere. Chang-dong presents the members of the church as generally good-hearted, well-intentioned people who have determined to actually follow the teachings of Christ and love their neighbors.
There have certainly been other films made from an agnostic/atheistic viewpoint that have explored the notion of religious faith as a necessary delusion (Leon Morin, Priest and The Invention of Lying come to mind), but Secret Sunshine addresses this notion more effectively than any other I've seen. There's an undeniable appeal to being part of a church family; particularly for a lonely, grieving person. By joining the church, Shin-ae finds an endless supply of support and encouragement, the promise of a supernatural being who cares for her deeply and a sense of inclusion that aids her immeasurably.
Christianity has an undeniably positive effect on Shin-ae in the beginning, but things get complicated when she decides to really tackle one of that religion's primary tenets: love thy enemy. Shin-ae has determined that she will visit a prison and forgive a man who has done an unforgivable thing. The other members of the church are astonished by her courage and her willingness to actually make an attempt to follow one of Christ's most challenging admonitions. However, when Shin-ae tells the imprisoned monster of her decision to forgive him, the man happily informs her that he has already asked for and received forgiveness from God. The notion fills Shin-ae with rage and confusion: how could God just forgive this man and make her difficult decision a moot point? How dare this man have the audacity to believe that even the most horrific of sins could be so easily dismissed?
Jeon Do-yeon's performance is astonishing to behold, as she turns in a striking companion piece to her excellent work in The Housemaid (another story of a young woman's slow unraveling). She takes the character to some hellish places effectively without approaching overacting, and turns portions of Shin-ae's journey that might have seemed unlikely into entirely understandable actions. The other key performance comes from Song Kang-ho, whose good-hearted, bumbling nature and unrequited feelings for Shin-ae serves as touching counterpoint to Shin-ae's journey. He is so in love with her that he's even willing to start going to church when she converts to Christianity, leading to an amusing scene in which Shin-ae questions the legitimacy of Jong's faith.
Secret Sunshine arrives on Blu-ray boasting a superb 1080p/2.33:1 transfer. Chang-dong continues to demonstrate his skills on a visual level, offering a host of indelible images that can be fully appreciated thanks to this beautiful transfer. Detail is superb throughout, allowing viewers to appreciate every symbolic touch and design nuance. Flesh tones are warm and natural, while blacks are deep and inky. Colors are bright and vibrant throughout, too. This is a spectacular-looking disc. Audio is similarly excellent, though the track is quite low-key much of the time. This is definitely a dialogue-driven track, and everything is crystal-clear in that department. The striking score (which is used very sparingly) comes through with strength and sound design is effectively complex when it needs to be. Supplements are limited but worthwhile: a 25-minute interview with Chang-dong, a 7-minute behind-the-scenes piece, a trailer and a booklet featuring an essay by Dennis Lim.
South Korea has produced some of the finest films of recent years, and Secret Sunshine is another powerful example of the exceptional filmmaking we're seeing from that country. Criterion's Blu-ray release looks and sounds gorgeous, even if it is a little light on supplements. Highly recommended.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
Running Time: 142 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Rated R