Korean Movies: “Secret Sunshine” (2007)

17 Sep

I’m not very knowledgeable when it comes to Korean films. I’ve only ever seen two: “Mother” and “71: Into the Fire” so I still don’t have a grasp on how different (if there are any differences) it is from Hollywood. Recently, Korean films have garnered attention from overseas critics who are amazed by the great films pouring out of the country.

Secret Sunshine premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007 and won the award for Best Actress for Jeon Do-yeon’s arresting performance. Its director, Lee Chang-dong, was already well known outside of Korea for his film “Oasis” (which is sadly unavailable in Netflix) and so this film was one of the more anticipated films of that year. Although I knew all about Chang-dong and the awards hoopla surrounding this film, I wasn’t prepared for how moving and sometimes painful the film is going to be.

(SUMMARY contains Big spoilers) Shin-ae, a recently widowed woman, moves to the hometown of her deceased husband with her son Jun to start a new life. Her neighbors are quick to point out her oddness–why would she move to the hometown of her dead husband when they were living comfortably in the city? At first, everything seems peaceful and happy but suddenly, Jun, is kidnapped and Shin-ae scrambles to recover her. Unfortunately, the kidnapper kills Jun and Shin-ae is left to pick up the pieces after both her husband and son died. Unable to move on, she goes to church where she finds comfort in God. However, when confronted with forgiving the kidnapper, something in Shin-ae snaps and she ends up questioning her faith in God.

The movie touches upon so many themes that I don’t know where to start from. The most obvious themes here are both forgiveness and faith. If God exists and loves everyone, how can he let such bad things happen to one person? How can God or anyone forgive someone who kills another person? These questions are essentially the bedrock of Shin-ae’s conflicts and she refuses to acknowledge God as a benevolent being and essentially that forgiveness can be handed out so easily.

Essentially, the story lives and dies upon Jeon Do-yeon’s performance and she is marvelous. Because of the story, we see her transform from a satisfied if still grieving widow who dotes on her son to a woman on a verge of a nervous breakdown. It’s scary to look at her as her life spins out of control. Her explosions of anger and tears are so painful to watch yet they feel so real.

At the beginning, she was very cheerful even if it revealed sadness on its edges. Still, her son gave her hope to live on and I guess that’s why she’s happy whenever he’s around. When that is taken away from him, her second stage comes up. The panic and fear on her face as her son disappears and the fact that the situation seems to turn for the worst is all etched in her face. When the tragedy occurs, we get an empty vessel–nothing is in that soul anymore except pain and memories that she can’t stop replaying. That one scene where she listens to her son’s tape is particularly haunting because she does it in an empty house and it feels like a ghost is talking to her. That shell couldn’t even cry at her son’s funeral because she’s empty.

When she turned to God for comfort, it seems she has gotten a hold of herself except this time we get a more cult-like Shin-ae. She’s so much more dependent on God like he’s a drug and Shin-ae is possessed but it keeps her afloat. I think this is why she’s so willing to go back to church; it keeps her at peace even though beneath that creepy smile, she’s still in shattered pieces.

But what happens when faced with the idea of forgiving his son’s killer? She wants to forgive her because of God’s message that everyone can be forgiven, so even if it is premature, she visits him to tell him she’s forgiven him. But when she visits him, the killer is the least bit remorseful. Instead, he reasons that God has spoken to him and forgiven him for his crimes after he repented in tears. This leaves Shin-ae shocked, confused, and angry. How can God forgive him before she had the chance to? Suddenly, she questions God again and why he’d be willing to forgive someone so cruel when she herself couldn’t do it.

Now, we see Shin-ae’s descent into madness as she challenges God at every opportunity. She steals a CD to play “Lies” (not the Big Bang song) at a church gathering, she tempts the married pastor and seduces him to almost having sex with her, and she cuts herself while saying “I won’t lose to you” even when indeed she is losing. It’s a tragic piece of acting and Jeon is extremely adept at portraying the hurt, the anger, and the lonely with subtle looks.

I thought that this was a great movie that addressed its themes without going into melodramatic exploitation. Jeon Do-yeon especially makes this movie such a painful experience, but in a good way. I shed a few tears and my heart broke several times over the course of this movie but it was a great experience.




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