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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.