Chang-dong Lee directed one of the handful of films (aside from film festivals) that I saw in theaters over this past year: Poetry was a sublime film experience. Secret Sunshine is the director’s film made just before Poetry. To say it doesn’t quite rise to the level of his latest film, it’s to slight it not in the least. It’s an emotional film, and a difficult role to pull off, so it’s a credit to the talents of Do-yeon Jeon (Best Actress, Cannes 2007). She plays a woman, recently widowed, who decides to start over with her young son in another city. Moving from Seoul, she moves to the city of her late husbands birth, which none of the residents of that city can quite understand. She’s slow to make friends, but eventually the ‘natives’ warm up to her.
Having given up hope of a career as a concert pianist when she married young, she opens a music school in her new home. Director Lee provides a portrait of a seemingly normal South Korean provincial town. Most people know each other, and each other’s business. This takes some getting used to for Shin-ae. She’s slow to make friends, slow to fit in. When tragedy strikes, she needs support and is drawn in to a Christian revivalist group. At first she believes this provides answers, but some answers are too easy, and religion turns out to be one of them.
The director is a rather well-regarded novelist (he wrote the script for this film), besides having now directed some of the best of South Korea’s New Wave. I would go back to the film before these two, 2002’s Oasis but it appears not to be available on DVD. In this film he deals with very emotional issues with compassion and even-handedness: coping with tragic loss, the efficacy of religion to provide comfort, the ability to forgive.
Shin-ae loses her child who later turns out to have been kidnapped and drowned. His next and newest film also dealt with a drowned child (though somewhat older). Odd. The turning point in her religious conversion, the point where she loses her faith, is when she visits the prison where the murderer of her child is behind bars. This is quite a scene. She has come she says to forgive him. But the murderer of her child says he has found God, he – like her – has been born again and has already been forgiven. As she walks out of the prison she begins to rage. How can God forgive him the brutal act before she has forgiven him herself? The presumption of God astounds her. There’s a lot to think about here, and I marvel at a film-make who can present such complex issues in a provocative yet clear manner.