25 March 2012
On Secret Sunshine
Never underestimate cinema. Just when I thought that I had finally seen it all, that every story had been told and that all I'm currently watching is pale recreations of former glories, along comes a film to refute me and soundly knock my clock off. True, there is nothing in Lee Chang-dong's Secret Sunshine that has not been explored before a thousand times over, but the brutally honest and wholly organic depiction of two very difficult human feelings - grief and disillusionment - sets the film apart.
In an absolutely astounding performance, for which she won the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival, Jeon Do-yeon plays a widower who moves with her young son from the bustling metropolis of Seoul to her husband's hometown of Miryang to start a new life. It is not long before a new tragedy strikes and the film follows this woman's intensely harrowing journey through the stages of suffering. In one respect the film feels almost like something Lars von Trier would concoct, what with the amount of misery Do-yeon's Shin-ae is put through (and that we must sit through). Two-thirds of the film is set aside to show this woman's pain and suffering and yet not once are we ever detached or exhausted. From the first frame Jeon Do-yeon's performance draws us subtly and sublimely in and then refuses to let go.
There seems to be an interesting trend in South Korean cinema nowadays that focusses obsessively on the bonds of family. There is of course, Bong Joon-ho's aptly named Mother, as well as Lee Chang-dong's most recent film Poetry, which shares many similarities with Joon-ho's film. A case could even be made for Park Chan-wook's Oldboy but I leave that to your imagination because if I say anything more I could ruin everything. Everything. The strong familial relationships in these films seem all but nonexistent in contemporary American cinema which nowadays is content to use the easy shorthand of the dysfunctional family to pad out its films. What was the last great American film about family, mothers and sons? All I can think of is Ashley Judd or Liam Neeson kicking ass. Ho-hum.
Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life deftly depicts the compassion, frustration and jealousies of family in that elliptical, obsessively singular style he alone has mastered. Everyone I know who has a kid told me that I missed an essential element of that film because I myself have not experienced that most primal of bonds. I would assume then that anyone in that position should steer far clear of Secret Sunshine because they may never come back. Another similar quality of both The Tree of Life and Secret Sunshine is their deep desire to explore the limits of spirituality, although the films differ significantly in approach and come to almost opposite conclusions, that is if they come to any conclusions at all.
Shin-ae begins the film uninterested, if not completely dismissive of religion, brushing off her neighborhood pharmacist who tries pushing the good book on her to ease her mourning. Later when she hits rock bottom, she finally finds solace when visiting a nearby church, albeit a solace that is flimsy and ultimately fleeting. Shin-ae's ardent acceptance of faith and the ensuing journey religion provides her is one of the film's most thrilling explorations. Lee Chang-dong's script weaves through the tricky nature of faith from a detached but compassionate stance. He boldly takes us from agnosticism to fervent devotee and back again in a patient and understanding manner. That Shin-ae's suitor and guardian, the mechanic Jong Chan, remains with the church long after Shin-ae has moved on is not lost on the audience. We understand now how one could find happiness there.
This patience that Lee Chang-dong possesses, that allows the audience to pick up on the subtleties and complexities of the characters, their questions and passions, is truly what makes Secret Sunshine an unequivocal success. The considerate construction of the film, that focuses with such intensity on a grieving woman while still allowing time for explorations on the edges with a couple of secondary characters and their own journeys, is remarkable. And while the performances at the center of the aforementioned Mother and Poetry carry their respective pictures, Jeon Do-yeon goes deeper and wider, creating a character that despite the hardships and devastation, manages to live on to the end of the picture, and beyond.