In his latest film, set to compete at Cannes, director Lee Chang-dong achieves a thought-provoking drama that asks if hope exists
Life, they say, is a tragedy for those who feel and a comedy for those who think. "Milyang (Secret Sunshine)" amplifies the extreme tragedy of one vulnerable Korean woman`s life; the movie also pushes viewers to think hard about life`s cruel arbitrariness and an elusive, almost secretive, ray of hope.
The sheer dramatic power of "Secret Sunshine" comes from director Lee Chang-dong`s ever-evolving storytelling techniques. The former culture and tourism minister is not unfamiliar with the dark side of life, as his much-celebrated films "Oasis" and "Peppermint Candy" richly testify. This time, Lee seems to have pushed his own limits with a plot and characterization that border on a mind-boggling turn of sad events that threaten to overwhelm and destroy the human spirit.
<**1>The fragile mind beset by a mercilessly harsh reality is represented by Shin-ae (Jeon Do-youn), a piano teacher who is already struggling to stand on her own feet emotionally after the death of her husband. To escape from her predicament, she moves to Milyang, North Gyeongsang Province, her late husband`s hometown.
In Milyang (which translates as "secret sunshine"), Shin-ae has a brief chance to brighten up her depressing life when she meets Jong-chan (Song Kang-ho), a local car repair shop owner. Jong-chan falls in love with her and helps her settle down smoothly in Milyang.
But their romance does not get a chance to develop further when Shin-ae`s son is kidnapped and she has no one to turn to. She tries everything she can to get her son back, but life is cruelly indifferent to her wishes again.
In utter despair, she seeks solace at a local church and finds her troubled soul beginning to heal when she devotes herself to Christianity.
At this seemingly religious moment, director Lee questions the purpose of religion. The answer seems perplexingly mixed. For a kidnapper now behind bars, religion is indeed a reason to keep living. For Shin-ae, God should know when to intervene. For when Shin-ae visits the kidnapper in prison, he calmly tells her that he sought and received forgiveness from God and is now perfectly at peace. Shin-ae is not, and her religious conviction turns into a sense of betrayal and hopelessness.
Falsely -- or rightly -- believing that God has betrayed her, Shin-ae seduces a pharmacist`s husband, and expresses her disillusionment publicly when a pastor delivers a sermon to locals. It is Jong-chan who continues to stay around her, secretly caring about her constantly, subtly suggesting that after all a tiny bit of sunshine is available for a deeply wretched soul.
Despite the gloomy plot and religious skepticism, the movie has won wildly positive reviews from most Korean newspapers and film critics.
The fact that "Secret Sunshine" has been invited to compete at the forthcoming Cannes Film Festival is also fueling a torrent of coverage after a press preview on May 1.
"Secret Sunshine," to be released nationwide on May 24, is winning critics over largely because of Jeon Do-youn`s emotionally supercharged and impressive performance. Song Kang-ho`s natural performance, which compensates for the main protagonist`s tragic aspect, is also getting high marks.
Asked about the scene where Shin-ae despairs over God, director Lee said the movie is not to portray religion negatively. "This story is not about God but about human beings," he said at a post-screening press conference, adding that "it is Shin-ae herself who interpreted God, resorted to God and then felt betrayed by God."
Whether she can get even a glimpse of hope in life is far from certain, given the inconclusive ending of the film. What`s certain, however, is that life is a tragedy for her because she has been feeling it all by herself -- all the way to the abyss of despair.
By Yang Sung-jin