Lee Chang-Dong is a film professor turned director who is responsible for such acclaimed hits such as the fantastic "Peppermint Candy", the touching "Oasis" and "Green Fish". He has also been appointed as Korea's minister of culture and tourism at one point but has abandoned this post to concentrate on his filmmaking. This director has, on several occasions has managed to silence my voice because of the powerful portrayal of life in his films; it just strikes a chord in me and gets under my skin. "SECRET SUNSHINE" is no different, the film has won numerous awards and was given high praise in Europe and enjoyed a phenomenal reaction in its limited run in the U.S. The film is controversial; and it presents a very bleak view of Religion, Faith and (maybe?) brings up questions about the existence of God.
When her husband passes away after a car accident, Shin-Ae (Jeon Do-Yeon, No Blood No Tears) and her son, Jun relocate down South to her husband's hometown of Miryang. She attempts to settle down by opening a small piano school and yet she finds that she can't fit in this unfamiliar but "very normal" place. Life goes on as she gains piano students with the aid of a car repair shop owner, Kim Jong-Chan (Song Kang-Ho,Thirst) despite the fact that she finds his attentions to be nuisance. Her son, Jun seems to be adapting quite well to their new life but fate intervenes; their lives are turned upside-down when her son becomes a victim of a fatal kidnapping.
Shin-Ae turns to Christianity to relieve her pain and anger, but when something occurs that makes her question her faith, she begins to rebel against God.
Christianity has made quite an impact in South Korea the past several years. "Secret Sunshine" boldly goes to the lengths of portraying just what Christianity is from one woman's point of view. To some, Christianity is a way of life, to some it is a social affair, to some who have religion because they see themselves as a blessed few--for this woman named Shin-Ae (played by Jeon Do-Yeon) it is the only thing she has left. Shin-Ae's religious faith is the film's central focus and the film's most powerful theme. When things don't turn out the way you wanted it to, does one turn away from God? Lee Chang-Dong presents powerful this moral character study of a woman awakened by her faith that becomes blind obsession, that turns into a frightening rebellion. Life is complex and the belief in God is no different. The film doesn't hold back in what it is trying to say, it criticizes religion itself in a very blistering manner.
The film's structure is very odd; it starts off as a romantic drama, then it becomes a thriller until it goes into overdrive as the female lead descends into her own personal darkness. However, odd it may be, it remains riveting. Its unpredictability is played quite well as it reflects just how unpredictable changes can become in one's life. I can reveal two subtle metaphors in the film's first act and near its climax that Lee Chang-Dong may have wanted to reveal without spoiling the film. It occurs in the film's first act when Shin-Ae was walking around in town soliciting for piano lessons. A small badly-lit boutique owned by a moody owner has a very small clientele. The interior of the store is painted black and before Sin-Ae walks out she advises the owner to paint the place with bright colors. Near the film's climax, the same store appears re-painted and re-decorated in white. I think these two sequences reflect the potential brightness and darkness in one's life; it would be up to the individual as to how one chooses to live his own life. Lee Chang-Dong makes a powerful statement.
Of course the film's success would have to depend on a very powerful actress and Jeon Do-Yeon does a stellar job as its lead. The actress proves the character's equal in its raw layers of depth. Jeon Do-yeon once again impresses me as she has done in the true-to-life drama, "You are my Sunshine" as a woman stricken with Aids. Her ability to express her character's descent into madness is full of powerful emotion and is so convincing that I felt genuine sympathy for Shin-Ae but at the same I was disturbed by the sequences I was privy to. Song Kang-Ho is a terrific actor and plays the man infatuated by Shin-Ae and would do pretty much almost anything for her. His character represents the goodness in her life that he would try to overcome any obstacle. Of course, the man doesn't lose his credibility as a human being--I was very surprised when he lost his cool in a fit of fury.
"SECRET SUNSHINE" is the type of film that would stay with you even after the end of its end credits. The film has the inert ability to get under one's skin with its powerful theme and motifs that more than likely will cause some to question just what exactly is religion's meaning to them. These controversial questions are brought into bear with strong precision. To some, religion is a way of life, to some a vehicle for comfort and a way to feel "blessed"--for me, the film doesn't question God's existence, (although Shin-Ae does bring this up) it just merely BOLDLY criticizes religion itself. Lee Chang-Dong expresses in a very blistering and riveting manner that one should NOT mistake having a Religion as being parallel or the same as having a strong Faith in God.
HIGHEST POSSIBLE RECOMMENDATION! [5- Out of 5 Stars]
Note: This movie is getting a widespread release in the U.S. under the Criterion Collection label.
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