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'Secret Sunshine' Not Satisfying

2007/10/07 Source

Directed by Lee Chang-dong (2007)

Howard Schumann (howard16)

According to the Buddhist tradition, because the world is subject to impermanence, to live is to suffer. To overcome suffering, it is said, we must steer a middle course between self-indulgence and complete withdrawal and not add to the suffering by indulging in remorse, regret, guilt or shame. In "Secret Sunshine", the latest work by Lee Chang-dong ("Peppermint Candy", "Oasis"), events happen suddenly to a young piano teacher who endures two staggering losses and attempts to deal with them in ways that do not alleviate the pain.

Adapted from a novella called "The Story of Insects" by Lee Chung-joon, Jeon Do-yeon is Shin-ae, a widowed mother who moves to the town of Miryang from Seoul with her young son Jun (Seon Jeong-yeob) after the accidental death of her husband. When her car breaks down on the highway, she is assisted by Jong-chan played by popular Korean actor Song Kang-ho ("The Host"). Song offers a touch of lightness to the otherwise heavy going landscape, playing an overeager auto mechanic who pursues a romantic relationship with Shin-ae to comic effect.

Shin-ae sets out to ingratiate herself with the people in Miryang but the results are mixed. She warmly greets a shopkeeper but offends by suggesting that her store is in dire need of brightening up and she would be the perfect person to assist in the redecorating. Boastful of her wealth, she negotiates to buy land but it turns out to be pretense. After another traumatic event occurs in her life (brought about partially by her own negligence), she turns to the local Christian evangelical community and claims she is now at peace and has found God.

While the film is not about religion, it spends a good deal of time portraying evangelical Christians in a positive manner, showing examples of their emotional appeal to those in distress and depicting scenes in church that display authentic religious feeling. It is soon obvious, however, that Shin-ae's religious conviction is more of an escape mechanism than a genuine conversion experience and she is quick to denounce the teachings as lies after an ironically disturbing visit to a prison inmate.

"Secret Sunshine" is a powerful film, both complex and honest in its natural rhythms and brilliantly performed by the lead actors, yet Shin-ae's loss of emotional grounding becomes overly insistent and melodramatic towards the end in spite of a superb performance by Jeon, who won the award for Best Actress at Cannes.

There are hints from the beginning that a serious emotional component is missing in Shin-ae's life when she emphatically denies to her brother that her husband was ever less than faithful to her but the little boy's games suggest that much in their lives has been pushed below the surface. While Shin-ae is set up as a caring mother, her subsequent actions in leaving the five-year-old to fend for himself on more than one occasion seem inexplicable and the strong suggestion of guilt in her eventual breakdown is never explored.

"Secret Sunshine", despite its many strong points, left me emotionally drained and less than completely satisfied.


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