Undoubtedly a heart-wrenching melodrama that isn't all about the emotions but also the intellectual controversies plaguing the film and audience. This makes a powerful two-prong aggression on our minds and hearts, leaving one stunned in awe with a few days' worth of food for thoughts upon leaving the theatre. While Lee Chang-Dong has submitted one of his best works to Cannes 2007, it's his captivating lead actress Jeon Do-yeon who has made this film so much more over what the film material already has to offer.
After losing her husband, Shin-ae (Jeon Do-yeon), a single mother, relocates to her husband's hometown Miryang ("Secret Sunshine") for a new start. When tragedy strikes, Shin-ae undergoes an emotionally shattering journey that pits her against everything she's known about humanity, love, forgiveness, and God.
To be honest, Secret Sunshine really did challenge my wits and senses.
Taking a good deal of time to build and develop the first third of the film, Lee Chang-Dong made a slow-paced subtle first hour before the mid-film revelation plot twist where affairs begin to pick up with interest. In the opening, we get a feel of the curiosity that single-mom Shin-ae holds for her late husband's hometown Miryang. It is later during a random conversation between a native car mechanic Jong Chan (Song Kang-ho) where it is further revealed that it's literal meaning is "Secret Sunshine".
The first act's length really made this film unnecessarily long in my opinion, but later I did reflect and pondered about its possible intentions. Perhaps it's meant to keep the audience complacent so as to maximise the second and third acts' traumatic effect on us.
**Advisory: Potential Spoilers Ahead**
Tragedy strikes hard yet again in the form of Shin-ae's son's demise, which will be the second nightmare shortly after her husband's car accident. The film jolts sharply towards darkness from the bright sunshine and amiable people that we're made to think by Lee's lengthy first act. This is when the film actually breaks away from Miryang and evolves into a powerful character case study of Shin-ae.
Struggling to come to terms with the tragic reality that is slapping her hard in the face, she does what most women in her plight would - wail hard and let it out. Unfortunately (but realistically expected), it isn't enough to appease her emotions until via strange circumstances she finds herself at a Christian Church service where she began to take faith in a new religion.
The religion subplot appears to be somewhat a big question mark in my mind as I begin to fear that it'd become religious propaganda film in the end. We get a breather from the previous melodrama and observe Shin-ae in a much better state and vitality. After some church practice and interactions, we come to another tipping point where she makes a difficult decision to visit her son's murderer to forgive him herself.
From here on, it's a devilish abyss we see Shin-ae falling into.
Unable to accept that God has forgiven the murderer of his sins before she did, she began to turn skeptically away from faith and went on a lunatic stage as she's unable to handle the new revelation psychologically. Shin-ae gradually attempts various acts of revenge against Christianity - adultery, shoplifting, intrusion of a public worship service, and ultimately, suicide.
While the film doesn't take any angles and elaborate with any answers to any of the baffling issues highlighted on the silver screen, we do get to derive at our own opinions through Lee's observational lens that narrates the process of Shin-ae transformation. Of course, not forgetting Jeon's marvelous depiction of Shin-ae that really tagged hard at our strings of emotions.
It can be said that this film's essence can be found largely in Jeon's award-winning (2007 Cannes Best Actress) performance that transits her character from an apparently strong and independent lady on the outside to one who eventually lets all woes out in pain and lastly one who fell from grace. Almost every scene of this film contains Jeon's screen presence, perhaps there's a reason why Lee puts in so much footage of her.
He's probably infatuated and impressed with her convincing act.
Lee doesn't offer any answers and doesn't care much about what happens to Shin-ae in the end, what he's interested in is the process. Secret Sunshine tries to place focus on the new town Miryang as we get introduced to it along with Shin-ae. But like Song's character has commented right from the beginning, Miryang's like any other place in Korea (and even in the world) and it's just of different geography and culture (ways of life).
So it's not the new town that we somehow felt had doings with Shin-ae's misfortune.
If we actually trace back and forth the film, we do realise that her own acts were detrimental to her son's demise. Her fall from grace in the third act is likewise so. Perhaps it is not the murderer whom she has to forgive, but herself. Environmental factors can only provide so much, the ultimate driver to cause changes and effects is none other than oneself.
We'd only ourselves to hold responsible for all happenings, and somehow we need to come to terms and acknowledge that. The more we struggle, the more we suffer. There is a lot of pain and suffering in Secret Sunshine and from watching this film, we feel disturbed. Disturbance is a very healthy way to keep our lives in check, for us to stop for a moment and learn more about what we previously didn't have time to stop and ponder upon.
A brilliant film by Lee Chang-dong, the film's last shot is one that pans away from Shin-ae and stays on a patch of soil lit by sunshine. This ending shot seems to be abstract in everybody's eyes and the true meaning behind the shot is for all to determine.
I have a vague idea of it, but I'm still pondering further.