Take a Drink: whenever you hear “Miryang”
Take a Drink: whenever someone mentions a plot of land
Take a Drink: every time the teenage girl shows up
Take a Drink: for piano
Take a Drink: whenever Song Kang-ho gets shot down
Do a Shot: when sorry isn’t enough
By: Henry J. Fromage (Three Beers) –
Just last week I watched Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry, and was utterly floored by it. It’s one of the finest Korean films, and finest dramas, period, that I’ve seen. So, I came into Secret Sunshine with some high expectations.
Expectations are a bitch
Secret Sunshine is about a young widowed mother (Jeon Do-yeon) who moves to her late husband’s hometown to open up a piano school. A pleasant experience is soon marred by tragedy, however.
Lee Chang-dong is a maestro of human emotion and authentic storytelling, which the existence of Poetry alone would prove, but which Secret Sunshine reinforces. He starts the film unhurriedly, immersing us in the setting and characters before upending this world. What follows isn’t a mystery or a vengeance tale, but a deep examination of what comes after violence, and the lies and illusions both parties tell themselves in order to cope with their new realities.
Lee shoots the film well, and achieves some truly impressive, oppressive sound design, but he’s more interested in presenting his story and supporting his cast, and he’s proven to be one hell of a director of actors. The acting is uniformly good, but the standouts are Jeon and Song Kang-ho in a supporting role as a local everyman interested in her. He’s funny and caring, with a small undercurrent of mysteriousness in a very atypical role for him.
Song Kang-ho’s nobody’s straight man
It’s Jeon Do-yeon who absolutely dominates this film, though, earning her Best Actress honors at Cannes. At first she’s open, perhaps even trusting, but pivots after the tragedy, transforming into a woman consumed with grief and anger, which, as it too often does, becomes a small ball of abiding hatred. The film presents one scene as a turning point, but the truth is, that hatred never left her, and returned to the surface the first chance it gets. She’s one of the most deeply sad characters I’ve ever seen, because even when it appears she’s found some peace, we learn that she was just lying to herself, and I sincerely doubt that she’ll ever let that hate go. It’s a part of her now.
The way she appears to have found peace is through Christianity, and it’s in the portrayal of this that Secret Sunshine fails its humanistic aspirations and turns partisan. It’s viewpoint is interesting insofar as it’s a reflection of many Koreans’ opinions of the powerful evangelical churches in the country, but is about as valid a commentary on Christianity as a belief system as my views on Aboriginal Animism; i.e. completely outsider and tragically misinformed.
So, the penis gourds are where they keep their souls, right?
It’s disappointing, because if Lee had afforded the Christian characters in the film with the same empathetic detachment as he normally does, his film would have been a far richer and more effective exploration of the themes it was after.
This pivot point of Jeon from devoted Christian to furious rebel isn’t problematic from Jeon’s perspective. Her reaction is understandable, and almost certainly even strong Christians would go through a period of doubt and pain if not to similar extremes in the same circumstances. My problem is with her entire support system’s reaction to her reaction… which basically appears to be “eh, she’ll be fine”. None of these Christians really discuss her doubts with her, provide a shoulder to lean on, or even mention how strange it would be for a truly repentant Christian with even an ounce of real faith and understanding to proclaim themselves absolved by God to the the face of the very person they’d wronged. If you’re going to make a film about Christians without including any actual Christians, what’s the point?
On an unrelated note, I’ve got my Nepalese Sherpa drama cast picked out!
Secret Sunshine is half a perceptive, incredibly acted drama about coping with extreme loss, and half a frustratingly reductive, ill-informed commentary on faith. Regardless, you’ll be thinking about it for days afterwards.