Secret Sunshine (Milyang) (Director: Lee Chang-dong): Jeon Do-yeon gives a breathtaking performance as Shin-ae, a recently widowed young mother who takes her son to live in her late husband’s hometown, hoping for a fresh start. Instead, a new tragedy plunges her further into grief. Although to some, this may sound like just the sort of “film festival” film to avoid, it was never less than compelling, despite its 142 minute run time.
Possible Spoiler Alert: Despite the fact that every review I’ve read discusses the plot points I’m about to reveal, I thought it would be fair to warn you.
It’s clear that Shin-ae is already an isolated figure even before she moves to a new town. Her husband’s death in a car accident doesn’t seem to be the only reason she wants a fresh start. She leaves without telling her own family, to whom she seems estranged. Her only joy is in her young son, Jun. As she establishes herself as a piano teacher in her new surroundings, we learn a bit more. She had married young, presumably to get out of her family’s household. Her husband had cheated on her. Her brother seems to want to stay in touch. And then there’s Jong-chan, the goofy local mechanic who’s developed a major crush on her. Despite his sincere attraction, she tries to keep him at arm’s length. He’s 39 and unmarried, which makes him a figure of fun to his friends. But touchingly, he continues to watch over Shin-ae, and when her son is kidnapped and later found dead, he’s there to offer support. But she doesn’t seem to notice.
The film is really a journey into the hell that is grief. Though the first loss seemed only to stagger her, the loss of her child threatens to sweep her away. In a desperate attempt to hold off the full force of her grief, and the pain that is physically weighing her down, she joins an evangelical church. God and the believers are offering her comfort, even healing, and she snatches at the chance. It seems to work for a little while, and she decides to visit her son’s killer in prison, to offer him her forgiveness. But when she arrives, she finds out that he too has found faith, that God has already forgiven his sins, and that jars her tenuous belief.
At this point, we begin to surmise that Shin-ae’s relationship with her father may have been one of abuse, and her anger at God seems to become entwined with her feelings for her own father. In her sudden disillusionment with Christianity, she lashes out in ways both funny (her sabotage of a prayer meeting’s sound system) and cruel (her seduction of a church elder). Several times during these desperate acts, she looks up to the heavens and asks, “Can you see me?”
All along, the comfort and love she’s longing for are under her nose. Jong-chan (played with wonderful gentleness by The Host‘s Song Kang-ho) waits patiently, picking up the pieces at every turn. He even joins the church for her, which leads to several comic moments. It might be tempting to think that the film is criticizing Christianity, but in hindsight, the devotion and selflessness shown by Jong-chan is probably the closest thing to the ideal of Christian love in the entire film. Which is not to say he’s a saint. He’s lonely, too, but his determination that they are right for each other is touching and in the end, we hope, convincing.
The film could very well have been entitled “A New Life,” for that’s what Shin-ae is seeking all along. At the end, it’s not all resolved. She’s gone through hell, and might have to go through more, but there is a little bit of hope. The name of the town, we’re told early in the film, is derived from the Chinese for “secret sunshine.” By the closing frames, we’re hoping Shin-ae can see it.