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Lee Chang-dong's Secret Sunshine (S. Korea / 2007)

PostPosted: Sat Sep 29, 2007 7:31 pm
by arsaib4
[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 [2006]), 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.

Grade: A-

*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.

Re: Lee Chang-dong's Secret Sunshine (S. Korea / 2007)

PostPosted: Thu Mar 06, 2008 11:20 am
by justindeimen

Lee Chang-dong's exceptional "Secret Sunshine" is the single most emotionally ravaging experience of the year. It is an instantly sobering, brutally honest character piece on the reverberations of loss and a graceful memento mori that resonates with a striking density of thought, yet remains as inscrutable as the emotions it observes. Through its layered naturalism and stunningly trenchant view of small-town dynamics, Lee implicitly deconstructs the traditional Korean melodrama by pulling apart the cinematics of excess and ripping to shreds the arcs that shape its characters and grounds the proceedings into a crushing grind of stoic realism.

"Secret Sunshine" remains an immensely compelling, fluid work throughout its 142-minute runtime. Its bravura first hour is filled to the brim with subtextual insinuations, remarkable foreshadowing and adroit reversals of tone brought about by humanistic capriciousness. Adapted from a short story, Lee infuses the film with his sensitivity for the sublime paradoxes of life, last seen in his transgressively comic and irreverent "Oasis". Understanding how personal revolutions are forged when views of our universe are changed, Lee not only sees the emotional cataclysm of a widow's sorrow through an inquiring scope but also feels the tumultuous existential currents that underpin the film when religion becomes a narrative scapegoat in comprehending the heinousness of the human experience.

Do-yeon Jeon's ("You Are My Sunshine") Best Actress accolade at Cannes in 2007 is well deserved. Her performance as the widow Shin-ae remains an unrelenting enigma. As a character pulled apart by forces beyond her control, the sheer magnificence of this performance is central to the film's turbulent nature. With Jeon essaying one cyclonic upheaval after another, there's a tremulous sense of collapse that the film, to its credit, never approaches. Instead it finds a delicate balance that saps the charged theatricality and subsequent banality from ordinary tragedies and its fallouts. She becomes the centre of the film's universe as well as ours. Filmed in glorious handheld CinemaScope, the film demolishes the cinematicism of frames and compositions by becoming visually acute just as it is quietly harrowing when the camera never relinquishes its gaze from Shin-ae through times of happiness, guilt and remorse.

Lee captures the details of life in the small, suspicious town of Miryang - the awkwardness of communal situations, its uncomfortable silences and its devastations spun out of personal dramas. Shin-ae's interactions with the townsfolk rarely inspires dividends, especially when they are merely done out of obligation to fit in for the sake of her son, Jun (Seon Jung-yeop). The one recurring acquaintance is Jong-chan (Song Kang-ho), a bachelor mechanic of uncertain intentions who helps her en route to Miryang in the film's enchanting open sequence set to a captivating stream of sunlight. Song has situated himself as a comedic anti-hero in South Korea's biggest films but his nuanced, low-key delivery here purports the director's thought process of never having to reveal more than plainly necessary.

If pain is ephemeral, then grief can never truly dissipate. And Lee finds complexity in subsistence. When Shin-ae attempts to head down the path of reconciliation only to be faced again with unimaginable heartbreak, she unsuccessfully employs the fellowship of evangelical Christianity as a foil to her sorrow. But Lee knows better than that when he understands that religion, in the context of the human canvas of strife and misery, is never a simple solution. But Lee never rebukes the essence of religion as he realises the value of salvation for some through a higher power even if it serves a form of denial in others. The scenes in its latter half which deal with religion doesn't allow itself to become aggressively scornful, which is a feat in itself considering how many filmmakers let the momentum of the material take over from what they need to say to be true to its story and characters.

Lee's first film since his call to office as his country's Minister of Culture and Tourism is an uncompromising dissertation on human suffering. In a film so artless and genuine, it arduously reveals that there's nothing as simple as emotional catharsis, just the suppression and abatement of agony. "Secret Sunshine" leaves us with tender mercies pulled out of evanescence, and points towards a profound understanding of despair and faith.