NOTE: The following essay contains spoilers.
Not long into Lee Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine (2007), a melodrama about suffering, salvation, and the dangerously blurred line between belief and madness, the heroine encounters the first of several challenges to her way of looking at the world. Shin-ae (Jeon Do-yeon), a young widow from Seoul, has moved with her little boy, Jun, to her late husband’s hometown of Miryang (which translates as “secret sunshine”). She has set up a piano school and found herself the focus of local attention, not all of it wanted. Jong-chan (Song Kang-ho), the amiable mechanic who fixed her stalled car on the way into town, has become a persistent suitor. Most of the other residents are less kind, regarding the big-city interloper with disapproving scrutiny. And then there’s the pharmacist, who tells Shin-ae that the cure for all that ails her is the love of the Lord Jesus Christ. Flustered, trying to be polite, Shin-ae brushes her off. But the pharmacist, holding her gaze, coolly equates her agnosticism with a lack of imagination: “Maybe you believe only in what you can see. You doubt what you can’t see.” It’s a challenge the filmmaker has posed to himself, perhaps, as well as to his heroine, a conundrum that cuts to the heart of matters of faith, and matters of cinema too: on the one hand, the need and desire to find meaning beyond the merely visible; on the other, the impossibility of certainty in the absence of evidence.
Secret Sunshine is Lee’s fourth film; he has since made a fifth, Poetry (2010). Born in 1954, he came to movies after careers as a teacher and a fiction writer (he published two well-regarded novels in the eighties). With this background in mind, critics often call Lee’s movies “novelistic,” an easy way to get at their sweep and scope, their elegant narrative constructions and unpredictably multifaceted characters. But as Lee himself has suggested, another way to think about his relatively late turn to cinema—he was in his forties when he directed his first feature, Green Fish (1997)—is to see him as a filmmaker who is still discovering the medium, grappling with fundamental questions about its limits and possibilities. He has said that before he starts a movie, he always asks himself, “What is cinema for?” Secret Sunshine is a work of visceral emotions and abstract notions; a study of faith in all its power, strangeness, and cruelty; a look at the particularities of human nature and experience that account for the existence, perhaps even the inevitability, of religion—all of which is to say that it’s an attempt to depict the invisible in what is foremost a visual medium.
Lee has become one of South Korea’s most prominent filmmakers on the world stage: he won multiple prizes at Venice for Oasis (2002) and the best screenplay award at Cannes for Poetry; Jeon took the Cannes best actress prize for Secret Sunshine. But he stands somewhat apart from the other key figures of the South Korean film renaissance of the past decade and a half, and not just because he briefly served (from 2003 to 2004) as his country’s minister of culture and tourism, the first and so far only filmmaker to do so. The most successful—and most exportable—South Korean movies of recent years have been stylish genre updates or reinventions, like Kim Ji-woon’s A Tale of Two Sisters (2003), Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy (2003), and Bong Joon-ho’s The Host (2006). On the artier end of the spectrum are more formally challenging works by innovators like Jang Sung-woo (Timeless Bottomless Bad Movie, 1997) and Hong Sang-soo (Woman on the Beach, 2006). Lee’s subtle, forthright dramas don’t fall into either camp. Given his unadorned style, his tendency to efface his presence in his films, it’s tempting to call him a modest director. But his movies are hardly small—detailed character portraits, they invariably, sometimes imperceptibly, expand to take in the big picture, revealing the larger forces at work in Korean history and society.
Green Fish, in which a young man from a poor family gets caught up in criminal doings, is a gangster thriller rooted in the underbelly of the Asian economic miracle of the nineties. Peppermint Candy (1999)—like Memento and Irreversible, two films it predates—begins at the end, mapping in reverse chronology the failures and traumas that scarred its troubled protagonist, rewinding all the way to the Kwangju prodemocracy crackdown and massacre of 1980. (That was the year Lee graduated from Kyungpook National University in Daegu, with a degree in Korean literature.) Oasis details the relationship between a mildly mentally handicapped ex-convict and a woman with cerebral palsy—from a horribly unpromising start (he rapes her), the film develops a Fassbinder-like story of forbidden love threatened by the hostile prejudices of the outside world.
Doing the media rounds for Secret Sunshine, his first film after leaving his ministerial post, Lee stressed that he had wanted to make “a normal film.” He was aiming for a renewed simplicity, just “plain-looking shots,” none of the magic-realist flourishes of Oasis (which alights occasionally on some delicate fantasy sequences) or the structural trickery of Peppermint Candy. More than that, though, the “normality” of Secret Sunshine acts as an important grounding force, a counterweight to the theme of religion, typically an invitation to grandiosity that sends artists in search of the cosmic and the numinous. When I interviewed Lee in 2007, he likened his approach to an act of purification: “I wanted to get the mysticism out of the movie,” he said.
In Poetry, an elderly woman with incipient dementia, inspired to take up lyric poetry, enrolls in a writing class with a teacher who urges his students to observe their surroundings more closely, to look at things as if for the first time. This mirrors the implicit aspirations of Lee’s cinema of lucidity: to see more of the world, and to see it better. The clear-sightedness of Secret Sunshine is especially striking—not to mention hard-won—given that its protagonist spends most of the movie practically in a fugue state, reeling from a series of devastating emotional blindsidings.
The upheavals start about half an hour into the film. Jun is kidnapped and held for ransom (Shin-ae’s search for a plot of land to buy, apparently a put-on, has led to the perception around town that she’s well-off), and he’s eventually found dead by a riverbank. The tragedy crystallizes the real subject of Secret Sunshine: Shin-ae’s relationship with God (or maybe better to say the idea of God), which takes the form of an epic romance, from seduction to blind love to violent breakup. Lee has done something arguably trickier than to make a film about the power of faith that is devoid of mysticism; he has made a film that is skeptical of organized religion, even angry at its hypocrisy and opportunism, but never devolves into a mocking broadside.
Nearly a third of South Koreans are Christians, many of them evangelical; Seoul is home to eleven of the twelve largest Christian congregations in the world. It’s not hard for viewers to guess that Secret Sunshine is the work of an outsider—Lee does not come from a Christian family—although it’s pitched not as an exposé but as a sociological inquiry, a genuine bid to understand the appeal and the risk of a religion of salvation, the need it potentially fills for its adherents but also the damage it potentially does. Shin-ae buys into easy doctrines while suffering the temporary insanity that is grief, but the Christian community and its comforts are also a help in her darkest moments. Put simply, Secret Sunshine shows how religion uses us and how we use religion. A film about the lies we tell ourselves in order to live, it suggests that there may be no bigger lie than religion—but also acknowledges that sometimes lies are necessary.
Lee’s films are filled with complex truths such as these, which are never asserted but emerge through a suggestive accumulation of details and through performances that resist simple psychological vectors and instead bespeak wayward crosscurrents of emotion. This intricacy is perhaps most readily apparent in the two key turning points of Secret Sunshine: the carefully calibrated scenes of Shin-ae’s conversion and her disillusionment. After Jun’s death, catatonic with grief, Shin-ae stumbles into a “prayer meeting for the wounded soul,” the puppyish Jong-chan in tow. What follows is a passage of documentary intensity, but one that, in its discretion, is at once respectful and ambiguous, allowing for both the mysterious workings of faith and the suggestibility of humans. With the congregation in full, ecstatic song, Lee opts for a long, fixed shot from the back of the room, keeping Shin-ae out of view as her sobs become increasingly audible over the swelling hymn, returning to her only when the preacher approaches to rest his hand on her head.
After a spell of relative stability, having convinced herself to accept “God’s will,” Shin-ae decides to visit the killer in jail to offer her forgiveness. As she sits across from him (again with Jong-chan shadowing her), the film delivers its bitterest irony and sickest joke. The expression on the man’s face mirrors hers: the fixed, blank smile of the born-again. The murderer of her son, too, has found religion, and is positively glowing from it. The scene exposes the faulty, brittle logic of the forgiveness and redemption doctrine, at least as Shin-ae has learned it, and the shifting landscape of her face registers incredulity, betrayal, and resentment. Her absolution is moot. God has beaten her to it, and taken away her one opportunity to gain some semblance of meaning and control as her life spins away from her.
As Lee has written her—and as Jeon Do-yeon plays her, in a risky, volatile, utterly vanity-free performance—Shin-ae is never the blameless martyr commonly found in maternal melodramas. (Nor does she shed the decorous tears of a gracefully suffering heroine: raging against an unjust universe and an indifferent God, she bawls, heaves, retches, all but turns herself inside out.) Shin-ae is clearly fallible, a loving mother who makes poor parenting decisions, and she can be something of a cipher (we can only guess what compelled her to make a fresh start in a place with ties to her past, or why she’s estranged from most of her family and from her in-laws). But especially once grief knocks the wind out of her, she takes her place in Lee’s growing gallery of remarkable heroines. Lee began his career with male-centered films that unsparingly analyze the tough-guy mind-set that is a given in much South Korean cinema. From Oasis through Poetry, in what could be seen as a logical progression for a director who has always been critical of machismo and sympathetic to women, he has created some of the most memorable female characters of recent years. These are women with little left to lose; precisely because they are in some way incapacitated, they are compelled—and, perhaps more to the point, free—to ignore and to rebel against a male-dominated social order.
As Shin-ae lurches from one emotional extreme to another, Secret Sunshine likewise never settles on a center of gravity—it’s a film of constantly shifting registers, assuming elements of the thriller, the comedy, the melodrama. Amid the tumult, the film and Shin-ae find an unlikely source of constancy in the bumbling Jong-chan (played by Song Kang-ho, the popular star of such blockbusters as The Host and 2008’s The Good, the Bad, the Weird, with his usual deft mingling of humanity and humor). Complicating the film’s view of religion, Jong-chan joins the church to be close to Shin-ae but eventually derives his own satisfactions from Christian practice. At her disposal whether or not she needs him, he’s a benevolent stalker who comes to seem like a guardian angel, albeit very much a flesh-and-blood one.
Lee periodically fills the CinemaScope frame of Secret Sunshine with a view of the sky—the opening shot is a brilliant patch of blue as seen through a windshield—and Shin-ae has a habit of gazing heavenward, as if looking for explanations, meaning, a reason to go on. But the film ends with the camera trained on a humble patch of earth, illuminated by sunlight. It’s no wonder a rationalist would conclude a spiritual journey this way. Shin-ae has spent much of the movie agonizing over the invisible and the unfathomable. Lee ends with a reminder of what we do see and know, and it starts with the ground beneath our feet.
Dennis Lim is the editor of Moving Image Source and a contributor to the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.