(Note: I originally saw Secret Sunshine at AFI Fest in 2007 and this review is a slightly reworked version of what I wrote at the time. The film is now playing on IFC On Demand and it opens at New York’s IFC Center on December 24)
Sometimes the great thing about foreign films is that, unlike mainstream American movies, you can’t always see their Big Idea clearly after 15 minutes. They don’t conform to a preset template or try to fit comfortably within an audience’s expectations. They can’t be neatly summarized in a trailer or, in a compact, easily digestible blurb. They present unique challenges and they also offer unique rewards. From Korea, Lee Chang-dong’s wonderful Secret Sunshine offers both in equal measure.
The film begins as a woman, Shin-ae, travels with her son from Seoul to the small town of Milyang (the name means ‘secret sunshine’) where her recently deceased husband grew up. It was her husband’s dream to one day move his family back to the town and Shin-ae aims to pick up her life beginning with this wish. It’s a kind of rebirth for her after tragedy – a cycle that will repeat itself two more times during the film.
One of Secret Sunshine’s primary pleasures is the way it constantly surprises and defies your expectations as it somehow seamlessly wends its way through multiple incidents, themes, emotions and even film genres. It’s an impossible film to categorize in the typical way and to outline all of the turns it takes would be to rob it of much of its power. I will say that more than once I thought the story had painted itself into a corner and it was doomed to dissatisfy, but every time it rallied and offered me a new surprise.
Holding the whole thing together is a miraculous performance by Jeon Do-yeon as Shin-ae. She runs the gamut of human emotions from simple joy, to fear, to anger, to sadness and even outright despair. Despite the fact that her behavior is at times questionable, her performance is such that you never lose sympathy for Shin-ae. I can see why the jury at Cannes was impressed enough to award her the prize for Best Actress in 2007.
Also of note is Korean movie star Song Kang-ho who’s quirky, slightly off-key, deadpan performances in The Host, Thirst and The Good, The Bad, The Weird have so impressed. Here he brings more of the same as an auto mechanic who takes an unwanted liking to Shin-ae.
In the end, the sometimes vague, elliptical and elusive nature of the story may keep this movie from being a slam-dunk, but the performance by Jeon Do-yeon makes it definitely worth seeing.
Secret Sunshine (Milyan). South Korea 2007 (US release 2010). Written and directed by Lee Chang-dong. Screen story by Yi Chong-jin. Cinematography by Cho Young-jin. Music score composed by Christian Basso. Edited by Kim Hyun. Starring Jeon Do-yeon and Song Kang-ho. 2 hours 22 minutes. Not rated by the MPAA. 4 stars (out of 5)