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Secret Sunshine (Milyang)


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#1 Peter T Chattaway

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Posted 22 September 2007 - 03:05 AM

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, 30 September 2007 - 05:06 PM.


#2 Ron Reed

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Posted 22 September 2007 - 01:18 PM

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...

QUOTE
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’s Minister of Culture, and it’s interesting to speculate what bearing his experience of high office has had on Secret Sunshine, a devastating account of a woman’s mental turmoil. Lee Shin-Ae (played with scalding intensity by Jeon Do-Yeon: Best Actress, Cannes) moves to her husband’s home town Miryang--the name means “Secret Sunshine”-- after his death in a road accident. Estranged from most of her own family and her in-laws, she’s determined to make a fresh start. She sends her young son Jun to school and opens a piano academy, fending off romantic overtures from a car-workshop owner (Song Kang-Ho, The Host) and "spiritual" overtures from a local Christian group. Then tragedy strikes again and she falls to pieces; her life becomes a vortex of hatred and forgiveness, faith and nihilism, composure and hysteria.

The word “gripping” is always over-used in blurbs, but it’s the right one here. Lee (who won our Dragons & Tigers award with his debut feature Green Fish) enters his character’s world with unsparing vehemence, taking the viewer to the very heart of an emotional breakdown and a fragile recovery. Bresson and Buñuel would likely both have admired the extraordinary achievement.


And this, excerpted from the International Herald Tribune

QUOTE
CANNES: 'SECRET SUNSHINE', A MYSTERIOUS JOURNEY OF FAITH
By Joan Dupont
May 23, 2007

CANNES: It is difficult to picture Lee Chang Dong, the director of "Secret Sunshine," going up the red carpet. Lee, who was minister of culture in Korea, is a shy person and surely the most discreet director at this festival.

His film, which is in competition, looks quiet too. "Secret Sunshine" opens on a fable: a gentle young widow, a piano teacher, goes to a small town with her child. It is her husband's hometown, and the early signs are promising: people seem welcoming, the pharmacist smiles at her, and her small son adapts to his new school. ... But things are not as they seem and her life takes a tragic turn.

"Secret Sunshine" is mysterious and terrifying. At times, it feels like a thriller, with surprising twists, but it has a hidden core. It is a story of faith, how it can enter a life, and how it can vanish.

...

Today, with only four films Lee stands out on the current scene, an intellectual who searches the hidden significance in ordinary lives. This is his originality, and what gives a sense of mystery to his films. ...

Lee shot in CinemaScope for the first time. "Most suspense movies aren't made in CinemaScope," he said, "but I thought it would be a good way to show the little things, the details in our daily life. I felt that CinemaScope could be a way of telling this story which is not just about what you see, but also touches on what is hidden. I tried to compose the scenes in such a way that you are not aware of the composition, only fluidity."

We are not so much in a state of suspense, as stunned by each turn of the story. "I think that audiences today know everything, so my goal is to do something unpredictable, to show them something they don't expect," he added.

...

There are evangelistic forces in Miryang and they get to work on the bereft woman. In no time, she is converted - but that is not the end of the story. In a densely written script, stories keep blossoming: some are unbearably sad, others funny.

"You see many crosses against the skyline of Korean cities," the director said. "There are many religions and sects. My family has a Confucian tradition so I had no religion, but my wife's family was Protestant, and I taught in a Protestant school."

Lee says that things that happened in his own life made him feel close to this story. "The woman's great despair touched me. She is in such pain, but in the end, she finds something inside herself.

"I think we keep living with faith because we need it. Even atheists believe in something - in something else. Yet, I didn't want to make a movie about faith, really, but a reflection on what goes on inside us. Cinema is a great tool, a way to talk about the invisible through the visible."

Edited by Ron, 22 September 2007 - 01:19 PM.


#3 Peter T Chattaway

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Posted 30 September 2007 - 03:46 PM

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, 30 September 2007 - 03:54 PM.


#4 Ron Reed

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Posted 01 October 2007 - 03:26 AM

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."

#5 Peter T Chattaway

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Posted 01 October 2007 - 11:41 PM

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).

#6 Peter T Chattaway

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Posted 06 October 2007 - 10:59 PM

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.

#7 Darrel Manson

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Posted 09 January 2008 - 09:48 AM

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.

#8 Peter T Chattaway

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Posted 09 January 2008 - 03:13 PM

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?

#9 Darrel Manson

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Posted 10 January 2008 - 12:29 AM

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.

#10 Peter T Chattaway

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Posted 17 March 2008 - 03:20 PM

'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

#11 Peter T Chattaway

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Posted 15 September 2010 - 11:38 AM

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.



#12 Ryan H.

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Posted 15 September 2010 - 12:02 PM

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.

#13 Anders

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Posted 15 September 2010 - 04:16 PM

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.

#14 Peter T Chattaway

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Posted 23 December 2010 - 12:29 PM

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).

#15 Darren H

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Posted 16 May 2011 - 02:13 PM

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

#16 Ryan H.

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Posted 17 May 2011 - 11:15 AM

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.

#17 Tyler

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Posted 26 August 2011 - 09:35 PM

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.

Spoiler



Two things about the title: First, the English version got this song 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, 26 August 2011 - 09:36 PM.


#18 Anders

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Posted 27 August 2011 - 09:07 AM

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.

#19 Overstreet

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Posted 31 August 2011 - 01:18 PM

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, 31 August 2011 - 01:19 PM.


#20 Ryan H.

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Posted 31 August 2011 - 01:43 PM

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