No Way Out
By Michael Koresky

Secret Sunshine
Dir. Lee Chang-dong, South Korea, IFC Films

Teeming with incident, full of emotions, roiling with anger, Secret Sunshine is nevertheless something like a blank canvas. Director Lee Chang-dong’s protracted yet endlessly involving tale of grief and regeneration is a classically tailored assemblage of small, clipped moments, prizing the intricacies of human behavior but also acknowledging it as remote and difficult to define. Likewise, Cannes Best Actress-winner Do-yeon Jeon, who remains the center of the film for its 142-minute running time, is kept at a curious arm’s length—every time we feel we’re one step closer to her, the film takes two steps back. Though Secret Sunshine’s schizophrenic storytelling ensures that Do-yeon will toggle between hope, desperation, despair, hostility, and peace, the director makes all of these fluctuations as ungraspable as gusts of wind.

That Secret Sunshine is given to whim is wholly appropriate, as the film is mostly concerned with the oscillations of forces beyond our control. Whether that’s fate, God, or human frailty Lee Chang-dong will never tell, main character Shin-ae will never ascertain, and we, as viewers, will never quite know. Secret Sunshine is both inviting and resolutely cold, letting us in bit by bit, even as it refuses to give us resolutions or conventional redemptions to its long tale of lost people. While it functions within the codes of melodrama, ultimately the film refutes catharsis, trading in minute occurrences rather than large-scale set pieces. Secret Sunshine wails, but who are its tears for?

Though his film exists in a bewildering space between life and death, or more appropriately between living and dying, Lee Chang-dong doesn’t overly aestheticize this world, preferring evenly lit, straightforward setups that belie the tumultuous emotions therein. Beginning with a gorgeous expanse of widescreen blue sky, as seen through the windshield of a car stalled on the side of a rural road, Secret Sunshine presents itself as a film that’s openly looking for something—for answers, for an endpoint. And just as the film will seek clarity for a way out of the myriad traps and horrors that come along, single mother Shin-ae will be shuttled through an array of challenges and tests of sorts, none of which may invite exit strategies. Soon after we meet Shin-ae, kindly mechanic Jong Chan (Kang-ho Song) arrives to tow her car, broken down en route between Seoul and her destination of her late husband’s hometown of Miryang; it will not be the first time that Jong Chan comes to her ostensible aid. For the next couple of hours, Lee will survey the ways in which these two people will make attempts to help each other, their motivations often hazy, their desires largely unfulfilled, and their hopes dashed by tragedies.

Once she arrives with her young son, Jun, in Miryang (which translates roughly to the “secret sunshine” of the title, a mysterious phrase that wonderfully embodies the elusiveness and the ultimate privacy of true joy), Shin-ae sets up her own piano-teaching school. Much of the first hour of the film is made up of short scenes and dialogue exchanges conveying Shin-ae’s gradual acclimation to her new community; her simultaneous need to start over and her inability to crawl out from under the shadow of her deceased, allegedly unfaithful, husband; and in expressing the tight, loving bond between Shin-ae and little Jun, who’s defined both by his proclivity to mischievously hide from his mother and the adorable shock of yellow hair that hangs over his right eye. The film’s register is modest and affable up to this point, with Jong Chan’s continual attempts to woo Shin-ae pushing the film to the outskirts of romantic-comedy conventions. Yet a sudden, razor-sharp left turn pushes Secret Sunshine into seemingly new generic territory, and reveals the film’s true calling as an inquiry into grief, and as something of a rebuke to all other films that would dare infer the possibility of closure to immense human tragedy.

It’s difficult to enumerate all the ideas Secret Sunshine bottles up about the emotional fallout from (and individual responses to) suffering without revealing its many narrative evolutions. Suffice it to say that Lee Chang-dong is succinct and cutting in his points about how organized religion, specifically Evangelical Christianity, is both savior and predator to those who need it most, and that its simple tenets of forgiveness are too easily, and cheaply, applied to monumentally complicated problems. As Shin-ae travels down an increasingly fraught path of promised enlightenment and supposedly imminent clarity, with the good-natured, lost, and dubiously motivated Jong Chan constantly at her side, Secret Sunshine becomes a bold rejection of Christianity (to which, it must be said, about 30 percent of South Korea’s population subscribes today). Yet with the exception of one uncharacteristically strident scene, in which Shin-ae clandestinely takes her anger out on a prayer meeting in a revival tent, Lee doesn’t deconstruct the promises of commercial religion through grandstanding so much as through the accumulation of human experience that can’t possibly contain its easy absolutions.

Shin-ae’s malleability, her absence of convictions and essential waywardness, makes her a prime protagonist for a depiction of the co-option of spirituality as a method for self-help and preservation (her lack of identity even shows on her walls: her teaching medals don’t even belong to her, as they’re false gifts from Jong Chan to help increase business). In one long held, immobile shot from the back pew of a congregation, Lee expresses the individual’s gradual absorption into what can only be called turbulent peace: Shin-ae shrieking in lament as a choir sings alongside in prayer. Do-yeon Jeon treads this rocky terrain with exquisite delicacy, burrowing to the core of every emotion without making glib her motivations, and detailing her own agony with such palpable pain that to see her at peace becomes, for us, a great relief. However temporary. Christianity seemingly provides stability for Shin-ae, a respite from hell on Earth, but Lee knows that happiness and true forgiveness can be other issues entirely.