Korean Movies You Should Watch Before You Die #11

November 19, 2010

This is a guest post by Nick Mann.

Secret Sunshine

Back in 2007 a quiet little domestic release caused a minor sensation in Korea when the leading lady was awarded ‘Best Actress’ at the prestigious Cannes Festival.  The international recognition piqued interest in Korea, but upon its release most viewers were underwhelmed by the film, finding it too slow and frustratingly enigmatic.  As time goes by Secret Sunshine is likely to be forgotten save for the trivial fact that it won an award at Cannes but this is a shame because it is, in my opinion, one of the best movies of the last decade and a pinnacle of achievement in Korean cinema.

Miryang is a town near the southern tip of the Korean peninsula and lends it’s name to the movie referred to above; the English title, Secret Sunshine derives from a rough translation of the Chinese characters used to represent the name – this is explained in one of the film’s opening scenes as the central character Shin-ae (Jeon Do-yeon) arrives in town for the first time.  She is moving here with her son, and though she claims this is the hometown of her late husband, her motives for moving are not exactly clear, and viewers must speculate or infer along with supporting characters why she chose to leave her life in the big city behind.

With this elusive opening, director Lee Chang-dong sets the scene for a long and episodic existential struggle in which audiences are mostly left to reach their own conclusions.  At first Shin-ae is beset with the normal challenges of life in a new place.  As a newcomer she comes under the scrutiny of the local women, her brother visits from Seoul to criticize her decision to move, and she is constantly pestered by a desperate, middle-aged bachelor.  The building tension and awkwardness of Shin-ae’s situation is offset in touching scenes between her and her young son.  SPOILER… However her only refuge from day-to-day challenges is violently taken from her when her son is kidnapped and murdered, driving Shin-ae to the verge of breakdown.

Although the kidnapping occurs nearly an hour into the movie everything up to that point might be considered as exposition.  Once Shin-ae loses her son and finds herself utterly alone, the film really gets rolling.  In the wake of this tragedy the action has Shin-ae confronting big existential questions without answers (“Why do bad things happen to good people?” “What’s the point of life?”, etc), and delving into the realm of human spirituality, exploring the consolations and short-comings of religion. And all this is done with an unequaled blend of sensitivity and wit.

Confronted with a life-altering tragedy Shin-ae tries to bare the weight stoically at first but she is soon overwhelmed by her grief and in her darkest moment turns to religion. In one of the brilliantly ironic details of the script, religion is first pushed on Shin-ae by an evangelical pharmacist – one can image this character taking advantage of her proximity to the sick and desperate by trying to convert every person that comes through the door. Shin-ae is skeptical, even cynical, towards the idea of joining the church at first, but when she turns around and embraces the Christian doctrine she is transformed – serene, contented, and part of a community – even in the face of her loss.

However this transformation is short-lived.  The turning point where Shin-ae loses her new-found faith is one of the most brilliant, imaginative and realistic twists in a film. Her consequent rejection and active struggle to undermine religious ideals is equally fascinating and in places even laugh-out-loud funny.

Much was made of Jeon Do-yeon’s performance in this film and she deserves all of the praise and recognition she has received.  Her performance runs the complete gamut of emotion; she presents the agony, frustration and resignation of dealing with a personal cataclysm in a way that feels raw, honest and real. Every bit as inspired is the performance of Song Gang-ho as Jong-chan, the humorously pathetic bachelor who passively pursues Shin-ae throughout the film.  He is a well-meaning loser and his actions are at once embarrassing and endearing.  Song adopts a Southern accent, awkward slouch and idiot smile which completely transforms him for the role.  These virtuoso performances are an imperative complement to Lee’s detached approach to story-telling in order to keep audiences engaged.

It’s hard to sell a movie like this. One erring plot synopsis I heard before seeing this film informed me it was about a woman who discovers religion. That couldn’t be more basic and fundamentally off the mark.  Nonetheless the subject matter is likely to at once scare off unbelievers and enrage the faithful.  The film doesn’t make a strong case for the church, but it doesn’t outright condemn the institution either.  Instead of delivering a sermon, the story challenges audiences to inspect their own convictions on the subject.

Also, given the subject matter you would be forgiven for assuming this film is a melodrama. But in fact it is the aftermath rather than the tragedy itself that Lee focuses on.  For example the scene in which Shin-ae is confronted with the body of her murdered son is shot in extreme long shot and the music playing over the scene is a detached, almost jaunty tune that would be right at home on the soundtrack of a Fellini film.  Secret Sunshine is a singular film in my opinion, but there are a few ways that it seems to connect with the Italian filmmaker.  Aside from the music, Jeon’s unique balance of pathos and humor in her portrayal of Shin-ae is reminiscent of Fellini’s muse Giulietta Masina in films like Nights of Cabiria.  Finally the episodic narrative and enigmatic ‘art house’ ending connect it in my mind with the films of Federico Fellini.

Clearly it isn’t an ‘easy watch’, but expert direction, flawless performances and a fresh take on age-old themes at the heart of human existence combine to make Secret Sunshine a near-perfect work of art.



  1. Thanks for letting me share some opinions on Korean films through the Gibberonica. The pieces looked great and certainly reached an audience on a scale I wouldn’t have been able to reach otherwise thanks to you. ~Nick

  2. Could hardly be greater disparity between this and the previous post — MMA to understated art house film. Haha.

    This post was written a while back and I just watched the film again with my girlfriend, however, she didn’t find the presentation of the tragedy nearly as ‘detached’ as I did. And I didn’t tell her that it was about a mother who loses her son. I (rightly) assumed that if I had she wouldn’t have watched it with me.

    Like I said in the post, “Hard to sell a movie like this.” But I love it more every time I watch it.

  3. No problem, man. Thanks for putting them together. I’ve assembled links to them all in index post that’s up now.

  4. […] Korean Movies You Should Watch Before You Die #11 An Index to Peruse Before You Die November 25, 2010 You are dying. Everything is in […]

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