Film Review: Secret Sunshine

Superbly observed study of a woman's tortured spiritual odyssey, filled with honest drama, unexpected humor and brilliant revelations.

Shin-ae (Jeon Do-yeon), a single mother, decides to create a new life for her and her son Jun (Seon Jeong-yeo) by moving to Miryang, the small, bland hometown of her recently deceased husband. With the help of local car mechanic Jong Chan (Song Kang-ho), who has devotedly attached himself to her despite her personal disinterest in him, she finds a modest success as a piano teacher. Her placid lifestyle is shattered by sudden tragedy, however, when her son goes missing. Utterly bereft, she finally succumbs to the blandishments of the devout Christian churchgoers surrounding her, and finds God and inner peace. However, life has one more devastating curve ball for her, making her question everything all over again.

Director Lee Chang-dong creates breathing, absorbing life in Secret Sunshine, populating Miryang with a host of characters, beautifully observed in their small obsessions, pettiness and nosiness, as well as their generous human camaraderie and rowdy humor. Scenes set in Jong Chan's garage, with his contentedly gross, horny co-workers constantly sexually harassing an all-too-willing female employee, and a beauty parlor, where Shin-ae overhears various women she's met discussing her, have the vivid ring of truth. Also bracing are classroom scenes with Jun's amusingly fascistic speech teacher and a funeral scene in which Shin-ae's hysterical mother-in-law attacks her for her seeming lack of emotion. The Bible meeting sequences are done with a non-condescending yet very alert awareness of their often amusing, excruciating nature. (What is it about the Korean culture that makes so many of them such avid Bible-thumpers?) Lee's use of music is effectively almost nonexistent, and only falters when he needlessly underscores the crucial, brilliantly photographed moment when Shin-ae discovers the fate of her boy.

Jeon Do-yeon took the Best Actress prize at Cannes this year and deservedly so—there hasn't been a stronger, more riveting female performance in a long time. She initially presents Shin-ae as a perfectly normal, slightly withdrawn, understandably skeptical, humorous and forthright woman, a lovingly playful companion to her son, and then expresses her intense mental, emotional and spiritual transformations with a revelatory, un-histrionic transparency that is absolutely uncanny. The desperation she conveys when most sorely tested is heart-stopping; by comparison, Nicole Kidman's otherwise very decent, admirable acting of a similarly distraught mother in Rabbit Hole seems pallid and calculated. Jeon is especially indelible in the scene in which Shin-ae confronts her child's kidnapper in prison, radiantly filled with Christian benevolence and ready to forgive him, only to find her gesture superfluous, as he—also glowing with that strange, placid luminosity found in Jesus freaks—has already found God and forgiven himself. The moment is completely shattering, one of the greatest, most dramatically surprising scenes in recent cinema.

Song also creates a full human portrait here, a wonderfully realized character—a simple, square-headed Joe with not a real prayer of ever attracting the delicately complex Shin-ae, but dogged in his need to be near her, even converting religiously, which, to him, is really no skin off his back. The habit of churchgoing is perfectly agreeable to him—especially as he's able to exercise his Type-A personality by overseeing the parking lot—and brings him a sense of peaceful structure, sans any real heavenly visions or revelations. It’s about as truthful a depiction of practical, everyday, self-interested spirituality as has ever been presented onscreen.