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[HanCinema's Hall of Fame Review] "Secret Sunshine": Soul Food for Thought

2013/12/14 | 491 views | Permalink

In the Spotlight this Week: "Secret Sunshine" by Lee Chang-dong

Life can be really tough going, gruelling and cruel. Changes in career, a death in the family, and relocating are some of the biggest stressors a human being can expected to endure in the name of life. In "Secret Sunshine", cine-poet Lee Chang-dong tackles these hard-hitting events and asks what someone might have to do to support a truly troubled soul experiencing these major life forks. We can empathise, we can befriend, we can lie to them and tell it's all going to be okay, but sometimes we just need to be patient and follow them as they trudge through the pain. Lee's films have a remarkable spirit about them, a humanist honesty that don't force change, push healing, or prescribe artificial catalysts for growth. In "Secret Sunshine" Lee winds up a tragic heroine as tight as you can imagine, then watches her march off down an uneven road with only a shadowing mechanic to love her unconditionally along the way.

Awarding-winning actress Jeon Do-yeon plays Lee Sin-ae, a widow with a young son looking for a fresh start in honour of her late husband. She's moving to a new town to start a piano school, the place where her husband was born and longed to return to. She doesn't get very far though as her car breaks down on the way, but a guardian angle appears in the form of a rough-cut mechanic (Kim Jong-chan played by Song Kang-ho) with a big heart and plenty of patience. Lee goes through the normal strife of moving into a new community (meeting new friends, small town gossip and such) but ultimately warms her way in its heart. But another mountain in the road derails her once again, forcing her into a smoky tailspin that destroys her worldview and threatens her sanity. Meanwhile, Kim lingers honestly behind her, watching and waiting for any chance to show his unconditional love and support for this tired, beaten and ill-fated soldier of life.

"Secret Sunshine" is Lee's fourth feature in his short and stunning filmography, a list of features that strips the human condition down to its most compelling and essential qualities. Lee was actually Korea's Minister of Culture and Tourism from 2003-2004, and "Secret Sunshine" was his first film back in chair after his service to Korea's booming industry. It's a reminder of the man's commitment to his home country and evidence of his unwavering desire to prompt, not only Korea as a physical destination and cultural curiosities, but also its incredibly dramatic dreamscapes as he leads by example one fantastic feature at a time. This particular cinematic event was honoured at a number of award ceremonies. Most notably at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival where Joen Do-yeon won Best Actress for her incredible and multi-faceted portrayal of a woman on trial by fire. She wore no make-up in the film, as Lee wanted her to represent the average woman; a real heroine that is as inspiring as the performance that brought her to life.

I was extremely moved when I watched Lee's last film "Poetry" and was flawed here once again. Lee's uncomplicated style is simple, but absorbing, driven by characters and enriched by honest human essences that flicker in and out of existence at 24fps. Lee favours lengthy takes that encourages hearty meditations, hypnotically harnessing time as the weight of the action becomes increasingly crisp and satisfying. Tactful and humane, "Secret Sunshine" is a beautiful modern classic serving soul food for thought.

- C.J. Wheeler (


Available on Blu-ray and DVD from Amazon and YESASIA

Blu-ray - The Criterion Collection (US) (En Sub) DVD Single Disc (En Sub) DVD HK (En Sub)

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