[From TIFF '07]
Secret Sunshine (Milyang), the remarkable and heartbreaking fourth feature by Lee-Chang dong, begins rather inconspicuously on a rural highway where we find a woman and a young boy along with a car which wont start. Help soon arrives in the form of a local mechanic named Kim (Song Kang-ho), who eventually ends up driving Shin-ae (Jeon Do-yeon) and her son into the nearby town. We discover that this ostensibly fragile thirtysomething widow is moving into that small town of Milyang (characterized by Kim as "fairly right-wing"), the place where her late husband was born. Shin-ae opens up a piano school and attempts to integrate herself into the new surroundings. In the meantime, the jovial and loquacious Kim keeps trying to do the same with Shin-ae, who is somewhat wary of his advances but threads him along for her benefit. And then a tragedy strikes which quite literally picks up the film from one course and places it onto another.
From the gorgeous, nearly-mythical opening shot of the sun and clouds in the blue skies to the final rudimentary image of a patch of dirt, Secret Sunshine offers an immensely engrossing and fulfilling experience -- the film almost constantly changes its colors during the latter stages yet they always feel right and true. The fact that Lee, who is known to be extremely demanding of his actors, has garnered great performances from his leads certainly helps in that regard. Winner of the Best Actress award at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, Jeon is simply phenomenal: even though the suffering her character endures isn't unique in human terms, she makes it appear so as that's exactly how one would feel in the predicament Shin-ae finds herself in. Jeon is tested in an array of emotionally complex situations but, much like Lee's screenplay (adapted from a story by Yi Chong-jun), she somehow manages to find the unpredictable balance. Currently one of the biggest comedic stars in his homeland (and most recently seen in the monster hit The Host ), Song delivers a delightful performance which in its own way is just as important to, and for, the film as Jeon's.
A Woman Under the Influence (1974), Bresson, Safe (1995), von Trier, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974), Bellocchio. Just a few of the names Secret Sunshine managed to evoke in retrospect, and not all at once, but the film resists any sort of easy quantification -- perhaps part the reason why its fervent admirers (and there are many!) have labeled it "novelistic," as it deepens and reveals new layers upon further examination (a repeat viewing is certainly in order though I'm not sure how long that will have to wait). While Lee arguably goes too far in attempting to point out the double standards which exists in Milyang, his portrayal of the evangelical Christian fellowship itself is rendered without condescension; the film truly is "about as limpid and unexploitative a film as you could imagine on the subject of human suffering" (Dennis Lim). And if the filmmaker leaves a few questions unanswered, it's hard to argue against after discerning where he ends up that he's earned the right to do so.
*SECRET SUNSHINE had its international premiere at Cannes '07 (in-competition). The film has gone on to play at Toronto and New York fests.
*Lee's three previous features are Green Fish (1997), Peppermint Candy (2000), and Oasis (2002). All good films; the latter two are available on DVD in the U.S. Lee, who started out as a novelist and a screenwriter, recently served as Korean Minister of Culture and Tourism. His resignation was primarily due to the newly inaugurated quota system for film screens.