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Peter T Chattaway

Secret Sunshine (Milyang)

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Coming to the Vancouver film festival next weekend; I've already seen a screener, and I think it's the sort of film that could generate some interesting conversation here. How one reacts to the film -- and its portrayal of Christians in particular -- may depend to a great degree on a particular scene between a man and a woman, roughly halfway through the film (I think).

- - -

Darren Hughes:

I hate to write capsule reviews of films like this -- sprawling, complex stories that pull off the remarkable feat of being simultaneously tragic, charming, inscrutable, and sublime. The tone of this thing could have collapsed at any moment; Lee Chang-dong is some kind of genius for pulling it off.
Secret Sunshine
is about a young woman, Shin-ae, who moves with her son to the small town where her now-deceased husband was born and raised. There she meets several locals, including a persistent suitor (Song Kang-ho in my favorite performance of the year), a pack of gossipy housewives, and a pharmacist who is convinced that Shin-ae would find true happiness if only she would turn her life over to Christ. After several plot turns that I refuse to spoil,
Secret Sunshine
becomes, among many other things, the truest depiction of evangelical Christianity I've seen on film. Fortunately, Lee's film is not evangelical itself and, instead, wrestles with the strangeness and disappointments of faith in a way that
The Mourning Forest
, with its contrivances, could only mimic. Damn, I love this film.

J. Robert Parks:

The movie is obviously well done, with Jeon Do-yeon giving a towering performance as the mother. Her facial expressions in one scene when she confronts a man are almost terrifying to watch. Just as good in a much less showy role is Song Kang-ho, who plays a middle-aged car mechanic who pursues the mother romantically. Both a source of comic relief and, strangely, the moral center of the film, the character is one of the most interesting I've seen at the festival, and Song gives a rich performance. My problem with the movie is that I kept resisting the narrative, never quite able to give myself to a story that deals in extremes. The wildly shifting emotions are draining and not always for the right reasons, as we try to keep up with the mother's perspective.

Victor Morton:

After a tragedy, Shin-ae finds her way into a church, an evangelical Protestant group with a strong charismatic bent. At the healing service she wanders into half-unawares, the minister lays his hands on her (the rest of him is offscreen ... the perfect framing) and it's as if 16 tons of coal are off her shoulders. This scene is presented straight and without irony. She joins the church and seems content and at peace. But then tries something heroic, which I won't spoil, but which turns her against the church and into the remoter edges of sanity. I wouldn't agree with Darren Hughes that SECRET SUNSHINE is "the truest depiction of evangelical Christianity I've seen on film" (I've seen THE APOSTLE, and even, in a movie that has more in common with SECRET SUNSHINE, TENDER MERCIES). But Lee does get a lot right, including the physical stuff like the songs (no "Dies Irae" in a low-church setting or "Ave Maria" among Protestants, say), the parking arrangements, and the ways that this church provides community and love to those who badly need it. And Mr. Kim, who joins the church simply to pursue Shin-ae, eventually becomes a reasonably contented member.

Even the warts Lee shows in the church, or rather in this church, are not things Christians (or even evangelicals like Robert) are blind to -- starting with a certain spiritual immaturity that, while admirable because it grows from a boundless faith in the Holy Spirit, would encourage the spiritual equivalent of fighting for the world title after winning the Golden Gloves. (And as a Catholic, I have no difficulty with noting how the evangelical once-and-for-all soteriology encourages rashness even in non-salvific or more-secular things; indeed I count this as one of the film's strengths in its depiction of Christianity.) Even if Robert is right ... back me on this one bud ... there can be no questioning Lee's basic receptivity and seriousness, his sincere desire to explore a milieu or phenomenon in its fullness -- a religion relatively new to Korea but rapidly-growing. We're not talking Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris, in other words.

Edited by Peter T Chattaway

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Darren's enthusiasm for this one has bumped Olmi's ONE HUNDRED NAILS to the Number Two spot on my VIFF list.

Here's the programme blurb...

Secret Sunshine (Miryang)

South Korea, 2007, 142 min, 35mm

Directed By: Lee Chang-Dong

Since making Oasis in 2002 Lee Chang-Dong has served for a couple of years as Korea

Edited by Ron

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A Portraitist of a Subdued, Literary Korea

"Secret Sunshine," perhaps Mr. Lee's most unflinching film, acknowledges its heroine's need for spiritual succor even as it takes a coolly skeptical look at the role of evangelical Christianity in Korean society.

New York Times, September 30

Edited by Peter T Chattaway

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Saw this tonight. Very fine. Resists ready interpretation, in a way that reminds me of good literary fiction.

The section where the woman "tries something heroic...which turns her against the church and into the remoter edges of sanity" is brilliantly conceived. Made me think of Elie Wiesel's book "The Sunflower."

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Ron wrote:

: The section where the woman "tries something heroic...which turns her against the church and into the remoter edges of sanity" is brilliantly conceived. Made me think of Elie Wiesel's book "The Sunflower."

Unfamiliar with that book. But what did you make of

the fact that the "forgiven" man shows pretty much zero remorse or zero felt need to be reconciled with the woman

? I really like that scene and the direction in which it spins the plot, on a number of levels, but there was something about that part of the scene that didn't feel quite "right", quite "real", to me. It is scenes like this that people probably have in mind when they (or should I say, we) point to the "superficiality" of the film's depiction of evangelical faith (or should I say, the evangelical faith depicted in this film).

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David Bordwell:

For me the most unforgettable moment was the heroine's appalled confrontation, in a prison visiting room, with the man who wronged her. His unexpected reaction dramatizes how religious faith can cultivate both emotional security and an almost invincible smugness.

Anyone who has seen the film care to comment on this? FWIW, I commented on this aspect of the film near the bottom of this blog post.

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Saw this last night and was glad to know it was long, so I knew that the shift to act III wasn't getting close to the end. I counted 5 acts - 6 if you count the final little bit

after she gets out of mental hospital

. Each flows fairly naturally into the next. The story has time to develope nicely through the various acts. They aren't rushed. The crux (in the full meaning of the word) is the act about forgiveness -- also Joen's greatest bit (among many good pieces) of acting in the film.

i did find the protrayal of Christianity just a tad trite - but that may be because I find that particular brand of Christianity a bit trite anyway. But it does seem fairly consistent with the Korean churches I've had contact with. That, of course, is a key factor in the crisis that develops in the forgiveness act.

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Where'd you see it Darrel? Any chance that this is being prepped for a regular theatrical release? Or is it still stuck on the festival circuit?

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Palm Springs Intl. Film Festival. A majority of the foreign language submissions for Academy Awards are playing here. Like Ben X, I imagine a lot will depend on what actually gets a nomination.

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'Secret Sunshine' tops Asian Awards

Continuing its remarkable kudos collection, South Korea 's "Secret Sunshine" Monday grabbed top honors at the second running of the Asian Film Awards show.

Pic, a heart-wrenching tale of a single mother's search for new love in an unfamiliar town, was named best Asian film. It also earned Lee Chang-dong the helming crown and Jeon Do-yeon the best actress accolade. Jeon began picking up major prizes for her performance in the film as far back as the Cannes festival last May.

Variety, March 17

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Christopher Bourne:

Lee Chang-dong's SECRET SUNSHINE will be released in the US by IFC Films in late December. No word yet on if it's theatrical or VOD.

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Christopher Bourne:

Lee Chang-dong's SECRET SUNSHINE will be released in the US by IFC Films in late December. No word yet on if it's theatrical or VOD.

Oh, good. This is a very fine film, and it will be nice to be able to recommend it to folks.

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I'll have to check this out. My brother and his wife lived in Miryang last year when they taught English. I'm not sure if they've seen this yet.

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FWIW, I saw a review of this on the New York Times website the other day, so it seems the film has finally gotten its U.S. release (even if it's only in a handful of arthouse theatres or whatever).

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A lot of great announcements from Criterion today, but this is the one I'm most excited about.

What were the others?

And I can't wait to pick up the Criterion release of this film. SECRET SUNSHINE is a splendid, challenging film.

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I didn't know anything, really, before I started watching this, which really is the best way to experience it. I was surprised by how much plot and movement there was in the story, even though it's a quiet, interior film at the same time. I started out thinking it was something like a Korean remake of Blue, and then it became Kurosawa's High and Low briefly, and then Koreeda's Maborosi , and it didn't even stop there, becoming something much different and deeper than I had anticipated. (I blacked out those titles because if you recognize them, they'll suggest more than you should know going in.)

The prison scene is one of the best scenes of its kind since the Stanton/Kinski conversation near the end of Paris, Texas. The prisoner's expressions did seem strange, but I'm not sure if they were wrong, necessarily: I think it could be that he hadn't truly grappled with the enormity of what he had done and was in a kind of denial, in a similar way to how Shin-ae hadn't completely dealt with her own grief at that point in the story.

The way Lee heightens the suspense/dread during the kidnapping scenes when Shin-ae is on the phone by only giving us her side of the conversation was handled really well, since there's still enough to figure out what's happening. Near the end of the movie, though, I realized those scenes had done something else, as well. By showing only one side of the exchange, it ended up mirroring the prayer scenes that come later; that is, we hear Shin-ae's questions and accusations, but not God's responses.

Two things about the title: First, the English version got

stuck in my head. Second, the subtitles spelled the name of the city with an R instead of an L--Miryang. I'm guessing that's just a transliteration thing, but I wondered if it meant something else. Edited by Tyler

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Second, the subtitles spelled the name of the city with an R instead of an L--Miryang. I'm guessing that's just a transliteration thing, but I wondered if it meant something else.

Many Asian languages (such as Thai or Korean) don't distinguish between the sounds that native English speakers have separated into "R" and "L", so some people call it Miryang, and others Milyang (side note: my brother and his wife lived in Miryang for a year in 2009-2010).

So you're right, it's just the transliteration.

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I really, really wanted to like this movie.

I really, really didn't.

Now, before anybody jumps to conclusions (someone on Twitter did), it has very little to do with the film's portrayal of faith (although I do think that the movie thinks it engages with a Christian community fairly, even as it tiptoes around any serious engagement with the actual Gospel and the idea of the Cross). It has almost everything to do with the main character.

I struggled with this as I struggle with Tarantino and Von Trier: The extremes! The histrionics! The sudden changes in tone! Shin-ae's moods and attitudes swing to such wild extremes that it kept me at a distance. I never much cared about her, because her antics kept shoving me away from the movie to look at her as a subject instead of drawing me into her experience. While we're given an admirably nuanced portrayal of a faith community, what is interesting about them -- their strengths, their weaknesses, their presumption, their compassion -- is always swamped by the energy of Shin-ae.

I wanted to be thinking "What a compelling exploration of faith and culture and the steep climb of belief" and instead I just kept thinking "That is one crazy lady." Even the horrible things that happened to her were muted by her reactions to them.

I think the film thinks it's really wrestling with questions about faith.

I really don't think it is. At least, not after a first viewing.

I think the film is probably more useful as an example of meta-filmmaking, where the movie is more interesting as an exploration of genre conventions and as an experiment in creating tensions.

But as with Thirst, I'm left unmoved and even frustrated by a movie that seems - for all it means to explore - like it should become an instant favorite. I know that many of my favorite critics are in love with this movie, and I want to share that enthusiasm. But near the end of this movie I found myself thinking about bailing out entirely.

What is it with the Koreans? Celebrated Korean cinema is almost always frustrating to me. I really disliked Oldboy, found Mother very hard to get through, and worried that Thirst was going to go on forever. But I really liked The Host. Perhaps it's that I enjoy the playful stylistic experimentation if the subject matter is as goofy as The Host's, but when they take on real human sufferings (as in Mother or Secret Sunshine) I just can't deal with the fact that style is trumping substance.

But then, style is substance, right?

I need to wrestle with this some more.

Darren! Help!

Edited by Overstreet

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I'm not sure how right it is to toss SECRET SUNSHINE in alongside OLDBOY.

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I haven't seen SECRET SUNSHINE yet, but I really want to. I'm one of those who has pretty much loved all the recent Korean films I've seen.

That said, from my experience, what we read as "substantive engagement" with something is often a style that communicates through subtlety and fewer extremes. I know the kind of cinema that Jeffrey generally champions, and I like it too. It's the result of the cultural legacy of the European art cinema, and to some extent the post-war Japanese filmmaking. But not all cultures value that. Sometimes when people are upset, they rend their clothes and tear out their hair. It's something my Scandinavian heritage would balk at, but for other cultures is normal. Any thoughts? Am I way off base?

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I struggled with this as I struggle with Tarantino and Von Trier: The extremes! The histrionics! The sudden changes in tone! Shin-ae's moods and attitudes swing to such wild extremes that it kept me at a distance. I never much cared about her, because her antics kept shoving me away from the movie to look at her as a subject instead of drawing me into her experience. While we're given an admirably nuanced portrayal of a faith community, what is interesting about them -- their strengths, their weaknesses, their presumption, their compassion -- is always swamped by the energy of Shin-ae.

I wanted to be thinking "What a compelling exploration of faith and culture and the steep climb of belief" and instead I just kept thinking "That is one crazy lady." Even the horrible things that happened to her were muted by her reactions to them.

I understand you like Flannery O'Connor, Jeffrey. What would you say is the distinction between O'Connor's employment of extremes and the extremes you encounter in SECRET SUNSHINE?

I think the film is probably more useful as an example of meta-filmmaking, where the movie is more interesting as an exploration of genre conventions and as an experiment in creating tensions.

In what sense can SECRET SUNSHINE be understood as a "genre" film? I'm really baffled by this statement.

Perhaps it's that I enjoy the playful stylistic experimentation if the subject matter is as goofy as The Host's, but when they take on real human sufferings (as in Mother or Secret Sunshine) I just can't deal with the fact that style is trumping substance.

Is style really trumping substance here? Admittedly, it's been a bit since I've seen SECRET SUNSHINE, but I don't recall it being a particularly flashy, stylized tale. The story itself is extreme, the style is not. Chan-Wook Park's cinema is different, of course, and OLDBOY and THIRST are much more defined stylistic statements. But as I said earlier, I think we run into all kinds of problems if we start conflating a film like OLDBOY with SECRET SUNSHINE. (And I'm not sure that style really is trumping substance in a film like OLDBOY, anyhow.)

That said, from my experience, what we read as "substantive engagement" with something is often a style that communicates through subtlety and fewer extremes. I know the kind of cinema that Jeffrey generally champions, and I like it too. It's the result of the cultural legacy of the European art cinema, and to some extent the post-war Japanese filmmaking. But not all cultures value that. Sometimes when people are upset, they rend their clothes and tear out their hair. It's something my Scandinavian heritage would balk at, but for other cultures is normal. Any thoughts? Am I way off base?

I think there's something to this. The storytelling heritage of many other cultures is more open to melodrama and extreme emotional swings. As I said in another thread, I'm a big fan of opera as a storytelling medium, a medium that almost demands such extreme characterizations and narratives, so perhaps this mode of storytelling clicks with me in a way it doesn't for others.

Edited by Ryan H.

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I understand you like Flannery O'Connor, Jeffrey. What would you say is the distinction between O'Connor's employment of extremes and the extremes you encounter in SECRET SUNSHINE?

Well, you're asking me to compare what works in a short story with what works in a film that runs over two hours.

I'm having trouble comparing the two, but I'll say this: When I step into an O'Connor short story, I step into a world of grotesques. Everything is sizzling with intensity. Everything is combustible. O'Connor's perspective gives us a world of extremes.

Secret Sunshine takes place in a world that's far more subdued and familiar. And Shin-ae walks through it like a character who has fallen from a more exaggerated, flamboyant movie. This one fits her like a suit that's too small. It's not her extremes that bother me; it's the contrast between her her and her context. That works when it's Jim Carrey careening through an ordinary environment in a comedy, but it didn't work for me in this rather serious film.

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I think the film is probably more useful as an example of meta-filmmaking, where the movie is more interesting as an exploration of genre conventions and as an experiment in creating tensions.

In what sense can SECRET SUNSHINE be understood as a "genre" film? I'm really baffled by this statement.

At times, it feels like a soul-searching Bergmen-esque drama. Then, five minutes later it's a black comedy. Then it's a thriller about a psychopath a la American Psycho. It doesn't make sudden, severe shifts, but the ever-evolving character of the film seems to have been a strength of the movie for Darren and others, where I found it distracting. It kept me at a distance, constantly reevaluating what I was seeing, instead of drawing me in.

I'm absolutely okay with accepting that the problem may just be me, and not the movie. I'm just saying I was ready to be drawn in, and I wasn't, and I'm trying to find words for why that might have been the case.

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I'm absolutely okay with accepting that the problem may just be me, and not the movie. I'm just saying I was ready to be drawn in, and I wasn't, and I'm trying to find words for why that might have been the case.

Totally fair. I'm with you in trying to find the words. One of the things I discuss when trying to explain Korean cinema to others is that they don't really follow the same expectations of "genre" that we have come to expect in most cinema. For much of Western cinema criticism, "genre" is a term we use when describing something like "action," "Western," "film noir," etc. But we may not realize how our expectations, our cognitive recognition and responses to cinematic constructions, are patterned on "norms" - genre in the original sense of "types" or "kinds." One of the things that I appreciate about Korean cinema is how it forces me out of my comfort zone - in a different way than say the classic post-war art cinema of Bergman did - and reveals how much my aesthetic sensibilities are shaped by norms and expectations.

My two cents.

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