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Peter T Chattaway

Secret Sunshine (Milyang)

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Well, I usually like being forced out of my comfort zone. I'm not upset when people are unconventional. For goodness' sake... Punch-drunk Love is one of my favorite movies. But just because something is unconventional, forces me out of my comfort zone, and "reveals how my aesthetic sensibilities are shaped by norms and expectations" doesn't necessarily mean that the thing provoking me is worthy of praise. Do-yeon Jeon and Kang-ho Song are clearly talented actors. But what Chang-dong Lee is doing doesn't work for me. (By contrast, Adam's Apples, another film in which someone goes to war with God, is an unconventional endeavor that worked very well for me.)

Edited by Overstreet

P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook and Twitter.

 

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Well, I usually like being forced out of my comfort zone. I'm not upset when people are unconventional. For goodness' sake... Punch-drunk Love is one of my favorite movies. But just because something is unconventional, forces me out of my comfort zone, and "reveals how my aesthetic sensibilities are shaped by norms and expectations" doesn't necessarily mean that the thing provoking me is worthy of praise. Do-yeon Jeon and Kang-ho Song are clearly talented actors. But I just what Chang-dong Lee is doing doesn't work for me. (By contrast, Adam's Apples, another film in which someone goes to war with God, is an unconventional endeavor that worked very well for me.)

I could stand corrected, but it's not my impression that SECRET SUNSHINE and many other Korean films are intentionally provokative. (I haven't seen the film, but hope to catch it soon).

My comment is more that it forces us out of our comfort zone through what might be considered a normative mode of filmmaking. My impression is that this is NOT Tarantino, et al. It is not intentionally "provoking" (Okay, Park might be a times intentional). Again, that's my sense of things from what snippets of New Korean cinema I've seen.

In the end, it might not be for you. I've read your work for nearly 10 years now, so I know you're generally a charitable reviewer, but you also have very specific things that don't work for you. I can get a sense of what film's will and won't work for you. And probably Korean cinema isn't it.

But I think it's valuable for myself, and for others to consider how much the "style" plays a role in what we attribute value to, and how culturally conditioned our responses to films are.

Edited by Anders

"A director must live with the fact that his work will be called to judgment by someone who has never seen a film of Murnau's." - François Truffaut

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Reviews and essays at Three Brothers Film.

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Jeff, I'm wondering if the film kept you at a distance simply because it's a melodrama. It's shot in a fairly realistic style but has the heightened, expressionistic emotions of a Sirk film. It's one of the things I most love about the film and about a lot of recent Korean drama. But I also have a weakness for melodrama.

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

As an amateur screenwriter, I've often thought that a film is much closer to a short story than a novel. That said, O'Connor has written novels, and that's primarily what I was thinking of here.

Jeff, I'm wondering if the film kept you at a distance simply because it's a melodrama. It's shot in a fairly realistic style but has the heightened, expressionistic emotions of a Sirk film. It's one of the things I most love about the film and about a lot of recent Korean drama. But I also have a weakness for melodrama.

You and me both, pal.

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I watched Secret Sunshine not too long ago on a whim—I was stuck at home and needed to kill a few hours. I didn’t know anything about its plot, its director, or anything else. I didn’t even know it was specifically South Korean.

All of which may explain my complicated reaction when it was all over two-and-a-half hours later.

On the one hand, it tested my patience with its winding, free-flowing story. And as Jeffrey has pointed out, there were those wild leaps from emotion to emotion.

But there was also a sense that, if you had asked me what I’d just seen, I would have said, “I’m not sure, but I think I liked it.” And then, if you’d asked me a few hours later I would have said, “I’m still not sure, but I think it was kind of wonderful.” And now, I can honestly say that I’m dying to see it again, if only to see if I come to like it even more or if I change my mind about it.

While I can definitely understand not liking it because of its manic side, I think I understand Shin-ae’s journey a bit (though I’ve never experienced tragedy on that scale, thankfully). What I mean is I understand that sense of religious elation and that crash-and-burn sense of entitlement, that fist-shaking sense that God didn’t hold up his end of the bargain, born out of spiritual immaturity and pure human nature (or sin nature, if you will). And I understand that attitude that says, “I’m going to get back at God if it’s the last thing I do.”

Thankfully, I’ve moved beyond much of my anger (and again, my life has been nothing like Shin-ae’s—I think it’s very important that I stress that), but I still understand those emotions.

I can also appreciate Jong Chan’s story. Is his faith genuine at the end? I think it is, because there’s something to be said for a faith that grows gradually, born almost out of habit instead of emotion. It reminds me of that C.S. Lewis quote (if I’m remembering it correctly) that by acting out of love or out of faith, that love or faith becomes real. It’s this kind of “accidental” perseverance that has helped me over the years with my various issues (“accidental” is a more apt description for Jong Chan than for me; my perseverance was much more willful, but still had that out-of-habit kind of sense).

Anyway, my feelings about Secret Sunshine could change when I finally see it again, but for now I’d say it’s a movie that I very much identify with and highly admire. It’s complex, difficult, and hard to watch at times, but I also feel like it explores some very true emotions—emotions that are rarely explored, whether in art by Christians or art from the secular world.

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Revisited this for the first time since 2007, and I realized pretty quickly that the reason I'd put it off so long is that the film terrifies me. The only other time I watched it was two-and-a-half years after my mother- and father-in-law were brutally murdered and two years after I left the church, a decision I'd made not because the murders changed my understanding of god but because I was traumatized and bitterly, bitterly disappointed by the total failure of my church family to recognize my trauma and love me through it. I can't go into details here about that experience right now because my PTSD will kick in and I won't be able to sleep for a week. I'll just say that Shin-ae's experience is excruciatingly accurate. Earlier in this thread I responded to Jeffrey's complaints about the film by saying Lee is working in a melodramatic form. Bullshit. I was still in self-preservation mode when I wrote that.

So many of the films we love are echoes of Raskolnikov. Putting the jailhouse scene 90 minutes into a 140-minute movie is such a stroke of genius, my estimation of the Dostoevsky imitators has decreased, I think. Lee's understanding of grace feels like a miracle to me. Secret Sunshine is my +1 nomination for the 2020 Top 100 and it'll be one of my 6-point, needs-to-be-in-the-top-25 votes.

I recognize that my very personal framing of this response makes it really difficult for any of you to argue with it. Apologies for that! You should, of course, feel free to disagree, dislike the film, whatever.

Edited by Darren H

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A couple more morning-after thoughts. The murders were 16 years ago, and I'm pretty sure I've worked through my long period of anger toward the religious world I grew up in. As Russ put it in another thread, Secret Sunshine is a rare film in that it's making a good faith effort to understand and challenge the real world consequences (not quite the right word) of Christian belief. I hope I'm also making good faith arguments here. Forgive me if not.

Part of the marketing appeal of evangelicalism is cheap grace -- the idea that by choosing to welcome god into our hearts, asking for forgiveness, and accepting grace, we will immediately be handed the keys to the kingdom, not just eternal salvation but, as the well-intentioned pharmacist tells Shin-ae (I'm paraphrasing), "You will know true healing only through god's love." When I said Secret Sunshine might have diminished my opinion of films in the Dostoevsky > Bresson > Schrader > Dardenne lineage, it's because in some ways they're appealing to the same basic human desire for a quick fix. By cutting to black just as Michel and Bruno receive the shock of grace, they're avoiding the messiness of the world those people will wake up into the next day. First Reformed strikes me as an interesting development for Schrader in this respect. That film feels to me like a shift from early Bresson to humanistic Bergman.

But Secret Sunshine isn't cynical about our desire for grace, cheap or otherwise. When Shin-ae walks into that revival service following her panic attack, she's given permission for the first time to grieve. The communal spirit there, the singing, the closed eyes and raised hands -- it's a primal ritual she's stumbled into. I would call that a moment of hard-edged grace. She's being initiated, by an ancient tribal practice, into new ways of experiencing, bodily, her suffering and pain. The trick here -- and I think this is one of the many aspects of evangelicalism that fascinates Lee -- is that Shin-ae's experience at that service is also an initiation into the tribe. And, as I experienced first-hand, many of our religious tribes here in the privileged modern world aren't well-equipped to deal with real suffering and pain. I didn't cry while watching Secret Sunshine last night, but my body convulsed a few times, and once was when Shin-ae is alone at home and is suddenly overtaken by grief (that's how grief works) and her trained response is to suppress the tears by repeating the lord's prayer as a mantra. It's a brilliant bit of writing and acting, somehow showing Shin-ae's genuine comfort in those words while also commenting on it ironically (but not with meanness).

Two other quick hits: One other aspect of the film that rang true to my experience but that might seem heavyhanded is the way Shin-ae takes on a kind of rock star status in the church. "Saving" her is a real point of pride for the people in her small group, and at a moment when she is isolating, their desire for her, the attention they give her, is another real source of immediate comfort. There's no binary thinking in this film; everything is both-and. Also, I wish Secret Sunshine had made Song Kang-ho famous in the West rather than Parasite because he's so, so great in this film.

Edited by Darren H

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1 hour ago, Darren H said:

 When I said Secret Sunshine might have diminished my opinion of films in the Dostoevsky > Bresson > Schrader > Dardenne lineage, it's because in some ways they're appealing to the same basic human desire for a quick fix.

Deeply appreciate your thoughts, D., and I look forward to screening the film. (Will be a first viewing for me.) I disagree with your characterization of Bresson and Dardenne above, but don't want to detract from some very productive lines of contemplation here. Just noting my objection for the record so that perhaps that strain of it can be taken up elsewhere. I certainly don't think Bresson or Dardennes are above criticism, but neither has struck me as pandering for a quick fix. If anything, films like The Devil, Probably, L'Argent, and Diary of a Country Priest are so devoid of hope that I sometime think they are pandering in the opposite direction and romanticizing despair.

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> If anything, films like The Devil, Probably, L'Argent, and Diary of a Country Priest are so devoid of hope that I sometime think they are pandering in the opposite direction and romanticizing despair.

I totally agree. I'm referring specifically to Pickpocket, Light Sleeper, and The Child. You'll see what I mean when you watch Secret Sunshine. It includes a scene that seems to be an effort to interrogate a trope in those films.

I'd encourage you and everyone else who hasn't seen Secret Sunshine to avoid as many spoilers as possible. It was an interesting coincidence to revisit this and High and Low the same week because both films evolve in similarly unexpected ways.

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This film almost had me, but....not sure I can clarify my indifference any better than Jeff did. Certainly don't want to engage in a sez-you type of debate.

I guess the essence of my disappointment is that the film kind of teed me up really well and then...not sure if it swung and missed or just stayed paralyzed in the batter's box without ever calling its shot. Either way, I walked away feeling that if the film had ended after ninety minutes, it wouldn't have been substantively different; it may even have been better. 

I won't dispute that some of the critiques of emotionally-driven Christianity are present, but observing something and interrogating it are two different matters. 

Despite spending an hour with Shin-ae before the pivotal event happens, I didn't have much (any?) sense of her as a character, which made her reactions harder to gauge. Is she supposed to be a personality type who is susceptible to particular influences? Or is she an everywoman whose personal details don't matter much? I don't know. Consequently, the mid-course twist ends up feeling too much to me like an end in itself rather than part of an intentional (albeit non-linear) path. That means the film I've thought the most about since finishing is Neal Jordan's The Crying Game, where the twists add interesting layers but the story would be thoughtful and meaningful without it. Take out the twist in the middle of this movie and what have you got? Would it still be able to critique South Korean Christianity without Shin-ae's understandable transformation? And is the critique that nobody can do anything about it or that nobody understands why she is going through it? 

There are a couple of things here that I found really interesting. The casual and seemingly unabashed lewdness of all the men. The cadence rather than the content of the prayers. (What does it signify that some of these expressive (I want to say Pentecostal, but I'm not sure it's the right word) forms of worship are so formally the same regardless of very different cultures? ) But I kept waiting for the film to pull the threads together and I'm not sure like I felt it ever did. The scene where Shin-ae goes into a tent at a park revival meeting and plays a song over the loudspeaker is typical in that regard. How convenient that nobody else is in the tent, that she knows how to run the PA system, that nobody else knows how to stop it.... she walks aways having expressed her anger but...that just becomes one more thing she does that people don't understand or speak about. 

Anyhow, this is an impossible film to dislike, and it is evident that it was meaningful to others in a way that it just wasn't for me. But I tried. 

 

 

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I rewatched SECRET SUNSHINE this past weekend in preparation for writing on it.  It had been a couple of years since I had seen it, and a few things were different than I remembered, in ways that really pleased me.  It's even better than I remembered, in my view.

I know there's a recurrence of comments here about Shin-ae and how her character is constructed (or not constructed), but I think the way she presents and the way she interacts with Jun are the aftereffects of what's happened before the film begins, and while you'd expect there to be some degree of sadness and grieving after the loss of a husband and father, we know there's much more to the story--there's scandal at the center of his death (which Shin-ae seems to deny was a scandal at all, whether she believes that or not) and some suggestion that she bore some imputed responsibility (as we see from the matriarch's reaction at Jun's funeral) and following these events Shin-ae wanted to cut ties with her family, through the perverse (or dramatic, or devoted, take your choice) act of adopting her late husband's hometown as her home.  In light of that baggage, her flat affect and Jun's taciturn withdrawnness seemed to me to be plausible characteristics of people weighed down so heavily by trauma and imputed guilt.  

I had remembered the killer's jailhouse conversation with Shin-ae to be one in which he wore his absolution with a leer and taunted her with his newfound state of grace, so I was surprised on a second viewing to see that it's really nothing of the sort.  He certainly should have spoken to Shin-ae with a different heart and countenance in light of the terrible pain and loss he brought about, but every word he says is theologically true, which is why the fresh betrayal Shin-ae feels is so powerful.  My Lord, the way in which we can weaponize the sentence "I will pray for you."  Better to just keep your damned mouth shut and listen.

But what was even more surprising to me, which I absolutely didn't pay enough attention to in my first viewing, is the way in which Lee makes crystal clear that Shin-ae and the killer's daughter are now linked together in life.  After Shin-ae leaps out of the beautician's chair, her accusation to Kim made me gasp with recognition.  Paraphrasing, she says to him "Why did you bring me to THIS salon?  And why TODAY, of all days?"

Where have you heard this interaction before, nearly word for word?

You heard it in LE FILS!  It's exactly what Olivier says to Magali--why did she have to come to him on THAT day, with THAT news.  It's like a rebuke to the universe as a product of random chance, like a validation of that useless old saw that "everything happens for a reason" or, as the druggist says, that everything that happens is God's will.  It's an arrangement of events in such a way to make clear to the person buried in pain that there is only one way out of the pit.  

There's a moment when the daughter is being beaten in the alley where it looks like Shin-ae might take pity on her and intervene, and a moment in the beautician's chair when I think that Shin-ae might open herself up to the girl after she learns more about the terrible circumstances that befell her.  That she was not ready to do so doesn't close that off forever, and it seems meaningful to me that Lee places these scenes where he does.  It would be too easy for there to be a hackneyed uplifting ending where the two of them get coffee together.  Of course, it may simply be that the daughter's presence in Miryang will just be a trigger for Shin-ae forever, among all the other triggers up and down the street, and that there is no path forward for Shin-ae that promises any true healing.  I know that it's my own personal bent that will take these disconnected scenes and imagine piecing together a path moving forward for these two abused and discarded women to find something in each other's pain that resembles understanding.  I will ride or die on the Dardenne/Bressonian model of repentance and absolution because it's all that I have, and all that I want.  I wasn't expecting to see it this time through in SECRET SUNSHINE, but in that last shot, when Shin-ae has set up her impromptu haircut, though it seems like there is nothing worse that could happen to her, the possibility of some communion with someone as hurt as her seemed like a small measure of warmth, like the wan beams of sunlight falling on the ground in front of her.

 

Edited by Russ

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