Having re-watched 2007’s much-lauded Secret Sunshine, one can’t help but draw comparisons between Korea’s Lee Chang-dong and Japan’s Hirokazu Koreeda, not only in their style — realistic, character-driven dramas on a variety of themes — but also in the disconnect between their most-loved films (at least back at home) and their best, as well as the respective flaws of each director. For, in many ways, the lackluster Green Fish (1997) is to Korea what After Life (1998) is to Japan: films that rightly heralded 2 new talents, even though the evidence typically proffered for such was wrong, coming, as it had, too early in their careers, when they were still developing their sense for art. Yes, the two would go on to craft better films, but just as interesting as the films, themselves, is this on-screen evidence: evidence that might get things wrong, but shows all the little paths a director could have taken, instead, thus crystallizing the art a lesser film might otherwise occlude.
And so, Lee Chang-dong’s excellent Secret Sunshine — a film far superior to Green Fish — has a number of representative moments: moments that show a director both at his height and not, moments that, in the midst of really fine execution, nonetheless point to something better that is waiting for uncovering. Rather than hunt for examples, however, I’ll just start at the film’s end, which is usually where these tendencies come and so often get mis-managed. Lee Shin-ae (Jeon Do-yeon) has just returned from a mental health hospital, and decides to go get a haircut. Pale — Pollyanna, even — something’s clearly not ‘all there,’ despite her release. She is, as we’ve come to expect, accompanied by the film’s perpetual loser, Kim Jong-chan (Song Kang-ho), a wannabe lover who takes Shin-ae’s moods, spurnings, and general abusiveness with glee in the hopes that ‘somehow, somewhere’ the two can be an item.
As per Jong-chan’s luck, however, he takes her to a salon manned by the offspring of her child’s murderer. She nervously approaches Shin-ae, begins the haircut, and Shin-ae — despite a large portion of her hair now being lopped off — runs out into her own backyard. Jong-chan arrives soon after, smiling at her (as if there’s anything funny), and offers to hold up a mirror she has found to cut her own hair. He’s smiling, still, as she sits there with the scissors, looking at herself (we see glimmers of her face in the mirror), trying to complete the task, and the viewer is immediately struck by the import of these last few minutes. Here is Shin-ae, clearly NOT alright, and given to the same life-patterns the film only hints at — unhappy relationships, self-loathing, an inner void — that she is repeating yet again, albeit with a quickly-narrowing way out. Jong-chan, too, will continue to ‘be there’ for her, to give her money, rides, and unwanted attention, for just as Shin-ae’s path has been cleared, so has Jong-chan’s: neither, it seems, is capable of living an enviable life. That all this is communicated in a mere few seconds of visuals, with barely a word exchanged, shows how adept Lee Chang-dong is at both forms of expression, and how good both actors are at executing them throughout the film. Thus, despite all the comments about the film’s sense of ‘triumph,’ or the characters’ hopes and realizations — A.O. Scott’s article ridiculously calls it “fierce tests of endurance and the resilience of the spirit” — it clearly isn’t. Secret Sunshine is not only about the choices people make, but also how choices can come ready-made, only waiting to fill some void of character. This is a nostrum that’s brilliantly recapitulated by the film’s ending, even as it’s rarely accepted out in the ‘real’ world, and even less understood.
Is this where Lee Chang-dong ends things, however? No, for he makes the camera pan away from the two characters — really, where the scene’s power derives — to a random spot of earth and grass, and stays there for a moment as the film’s true ending. And it is the sort of faux poetics that gives art-films like Secret Sunshine such a poor reputation among regular movie-goers, and a failed intuitive leap (a la Keats’s Negative Capability) that takes a really fine ending and allows it to deflate more out of the director’s own wishes for the film, as opposed to taking the film on its own terms, and letting it thrive there. In short, the film’s final shot has nothing to do with the film proper, nor with anything the two characters have or will experience. It does not recap their lives, clarify the film’s meanings, alter its direction, change what has or might have transpired, or do anything, really, except strain for a depth that’s not there, but merely occludes the one that should have played out fully. Perhaps Lee Chang-dong didn’t trust himself. Perhaps he trusted himself — as opposed to the film — too much. Yet I’m here to say that it doesn’t really matter, for the effect is what trumps all, and what, in this case, can be quite instructive to a wise viewer: as a mistake to look out for in future works of art that he might engage with, or create.
That said, Secret Sunshine’s last moment is not bad enough to detract from my original claim: that it’s a really good film, overall, and features one of the most devastating excoriations of religion and pointless hoping ever put to art. This is because the film is not really ‘about’ religion, or mental illness, or any other singular thing, but merely uses these elements for a higher purpose: that of a realistic drama whose strength begins and ends with its sense of character. The film, to this end, opens with Shin-ae’s interactions with her son, Jun (Jung-yeop Seon), revealing her to be a good mother that’s a little too hung up on herself: she’s moving to Miryang, a fairly small town that is, nonetheless, her dead husband’s childhood home. Beyond this, it is unknown why she chooses Miryang as her place to start fresh, and while some viewers might deride such narrative choices as not giving enough insight into the characters, thus turning them into blank slates, this is obviously not so. As Secret Sunshine progresses, we get just enough clues to make sense of the script, with many elisions that naturally — and wisely — speak to human curiosity, as well as our tendency to construct stories out of well-executed and meaningful hints.
For instance, although Shin-ae’s dead husband seems to have a hold over her, it is eventually revealed that he was a user and cheater, thus casting doubt on Shin-ae’s own interpretation of the past, as well as her inner health in the deeper sense of the word. Then, there are other clues, such as Jun’s grandmother, who attacks Shin-ae as “cursed” at Jun’s cremation, implying there are issues that go beyond death. In fact, for all the times that Shin-ae seems to zone out — such as at the wheel of a car — there is yet another strike against her character, as she is neither self-aware, in space or time, nor aware of the implications of the deeper world around her. Had Lee Chang-dong larded the film with pointless forays into her past, apart from the central drama that is on the screen, now, the viewer would have no choice but to wonder less, imbue less, and engage less — a mechanic that’s certain death in a film as long and multivalent as this one.
This dictum is especially true for Jun’s killer, Park (Jo Young-jin), who — in a deft touch — is at once Jun’s teacher and a normal sort of guy, and then a controlling, almost violent parent in other scenes. In one shot, for instance, he is shown grabbing his daughter (Song Mi-rim, who is Shin-ae’s barber at film’s end) away from her friends, and hustling her into Park’s car as he drives Jun and Shin-ae home. No, one cannot tell if his outburst is justified, but on a deeper level, it matters not: his demeanor changes, and savagely, at that, so when he is finally revealed to be the kidnapper, the earlier scene in Park’s car pays unexpected dividends and demands a repeat viewing. This is because both sides of Park’s character (and his eventual religious conversion) are realistic parts of a fractured whole, and while they make good sense apart from each other, they are even more suggestive when taken together. As before, had Lee Chang-dong explained any of this over-much, Park would simply be a predictable Hollywood-type killer instead of the fleshed-out person that’s shown here.
Nor is Chan merely the film’s comic relief, for he is both the narrative’s perennial loser as well as one of its few decent personages. No, Shin-ae is not evil, nor a bad person, on the whole, but still reveals herself to be selfish, ready to use and manipulate others — even as Chan is quite willing to be on the receiving end of such — and more or less delusional, both about her past and future, even apart from the deeper psychotic break she experiences. At film’s end, Shin-ae doesn’t really grow; she merely has her flaws intensified, her sickness brought to the fore, as the thing that comes to define her. Chan, too, has his purpose, such as in a great scene where he ridiculously sings karaoke to himself as Shin-ae is roaming the streets, hysterical about her son’s kidnapping, thus giving an image to Chan’s impotence. In other scenes, his bluster and supposed ‘friendships’ are seen for what they are, embarrassing Chan and Shin-ae both, while his eventual admission to Shin-ae that he continues to go to church even after Shin-ae’s rejection of faith speaks to a character arc that not even Shin-ae can be said to experience. Sure, his turn towards religion is not exactly deep, but the point is that it’s both unexpected as well as not ‘logically’ necessary to the film’s narrative, yet is there, anyway, for Chan is a real person, grows, and behaves exactly like a human being might.
Secret Sunshine’s treatment of religion is perhaps its most famed element, despite the fact that the time between Shin-ae’s conversion and ultimate rejection of Christianity runs less than 30 minutes — for, clearly, the film is not so much an attack on religion as it is a glimpse into false hope, and the sort of ‘luck’ our character draws us to, with religion serving as the context in this particular case. Yet these 30 minutes are well-spent, regardless, starting with Shin-ae’s zombie-like draw to a church’s singing, with Chan dutifully following behind. As she starts to cry over Jun’s death amidst the singing, the film takes on a documentary-like feel, almost, wherein the church’s audio sounds disconnected, the singing ‘seen’ rather than heard, and the viewer allowed to simply watch things unfold from a distance. This is a great stylistic choice, nicely recapitulating what we know both of religion’s manipulations as well as Shin-ae, herself, giving her eventual rejection of such a fatalistic quality that is evident in the first few seconds of being born again. It helps, too, that her crying is subdued not so much by a human being, but by a disembodied priest’s arm that comes out of nowhere and allows her to ‘see’. Sure, it is cynical, it is polemic, but it is well-executed, meaningful cynicism, and it is great polemic, not mere agitprop.
To this end, the religious aspect of the film also serves a deeper purpose when Shin-ae, in a silly move, decides to visit prison to ‘forgive’ her son’s murderer, only to find that he does not need her forgiveness, as he, himself, has become Christian, and has been forgiven by God before her. This sends her on her downward spiral, for religion, we come to learn, is not really a genuine expression of anything, really, to Shin-ae, but an outgrowth of her own needs: needs that are no longer being met, having outgrown the tiny casque religion once provided her. It is time to move on, sure, but Shin-ae’s problem is that this move will have no real purpose nor direction, for everything, from her gestures, to her desire to give forgiveness, is a mere bandaging of a far deeper issue. And, to Lee Chang-dong’s credit, this issue is never explicitly named, but wonderfully illumined — if, that is, one is willing to actually consider what the film says, as opposed to wishing, and assuming, for its opposite.
Other stand-out scenes include the tail-end of Shin-ae’s rejection, wherein her church group is busy praying for her soul, completely oblivious to what’s really going on, only to get a brick in the window their effort; Shin-ae ‘asleep’ on the couch, and snoring, thus harking back to a much earlier scene with Jun, who pretends to snore merely to resemble his father: and now, Shin-ae, to resemble her son; Shin-ae’s fearful reaction to an earthworm (never seen) as the de facto transition to full-blown psychosis; Jun’s dead body, which is not shown except for a crowd of spectators, shot from a good distance, accreting around some spot, with the typically expected features — facial expressions, gestures — wonderfully elided; and Chan’s sudden attack on Park, which has a forced, over-the-top quality that highlights both Chan’s motivations, as well as his reticent approach to life. Yes, the film can be ham-fisted at times, such as when Shin-ae attempts to sabotage a religious festival by changing its music (the first word her song broadcasts is “lies”), or early scenes with Jun where he pretends to get lost, thus signposting the future, but such missteps are uncommon, even if, overall, they take the film a few notches below greatness.
Yet the film’s deepest flaw — which, interestingly, would be a boon to lesser films — is in how well Shin-ae is characterized as a psychotic woman, for there is little beyond this psychosis, ensuring that much of Secret Sunshine (as with Herzog’s 2009 My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?) remains self-referential, and can’t really step outside its own parameters to comment on the world at large. Indeed, for it is really Chan’s presence — despite being a ‘mere’ supporting actor — as a ‘normal’ guy who witnesses and reacts to all this, in his refusal to leave Shin-ae to her own devices, that helps the narrative reach and succeed more deeply. In this way, we see Shin-ae parallaxed against the world at large, as opposed to within the confines of her mind. After all, Chan is not sick, in Shin-ae’s sense, but still knows no better, for his own issues — immaturity, little to no self-worth — are highlighted by Shin-ae’s, connecting her to a world from which she’d otherwise be completely disconnected, both as a character within a film, and as a person with whom a viewer can empathize.
This is a wise move on Lee Chang-dong’s part, and given the number of successes he’s had over the last decade, he seems to understand this. Now, if only he’d let other things alone, and focus on the only thing that’ll matter in the long run: new perspectives, rich ideas, living, breathing characters as carried in the brunt of more great films. Alas, 5 years (and counting!) is too long a wait!