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: … Continue reading →