Secret Sunshine (The Criterion Collection) Review

In its examination of the role God and religion have in human lives, Secret Sunshine doesn’t make it a one-way street where you either gain faith or lose it. Rather, it maps out the whole road of its main character’s brush with divinity at her darkest hour.

Being a film drenched in details that spreads the few plot points it has across a two-and-a-half hour running time, it’s not a film that can be replicated with plot descriptions. Naturally, revealing some of its significant acts are somewhat necessary to discuss it. The power is in how it details the series of decisions and emotional assaults its protagonist go through in order for her state of mind to come to accept God, and the further consequences of that decision, both of the positive and negative variety.

Secret Sunshine was made in 2007, but did not find a US release until late last year from IFC, and now come packaged in DVD and Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection. It was the first film auteur Lee Chang-dong made after retiring as South Korea’s Minister of Culture and Tourism. Prior to that stint, Lee directed great movies like Green Fish, Peppermint Candy and (still his best) Oasis. All three speak on some level about certain aspects of modern Korean culture through tragic lens, a practice Secret Sunshine continues in its attempt to portray Christianity, which is South Korea’s largest and fastest growing religion. With the film, you can see that Lee is an outsider, creating this story partly as a way to try and understand it, by pushing his character through the initiation process and seeing what changes take hold.

Jeon Do-yeon wonderfully bares herself as Shin-ae, a widow from the big city of Seoul who moves to the small town of Milyang (meaning “secret sunshine”) with her only son to fulfil her late husband’s desire to settle down back in his hometown. It’s with this set-up that Lee first explores the limits of a community’s acceptance and prejudice. It’s never over the top: Shin-ae isn’t outright shunned or insulted, but there are hints of gossip and distrust at her as an outsider. It’s the other way around, too. Shin-ae looks at others’ parenting methods with quaintness, acts like she’s wealthier than she actually is to impress them, and when the town pharmacist tries to convince her that the real medicine is the love of Jesus Christ, Shin-ae politely dismisses it.

The Christian pharmacist shilling for the church from behind a drug store counter is a bizarre invention, but by associating religion with pharmaceuticals, this scene is perhaps the most overt Lee gets in hinting at what movie template he used to tell this story, which is the Addict Movie. Lee’s film follows the convention pretty closely: the confidence of the protagonist in the beginning that motivates the rejection of the substance, the major event that reverses that stance, the state of bliss the drug provides, the personality change because of it, the sudden moment of clarity, the painful withdrawal that follows, and finally the bittersweet ending where things are changed, perhaps for the better, though the damage done is still visible. This recognizable and understandable series of steps is Lee making some sense out of the religious journey his protagonist takes on.

The comparison calls attention to the inviting comfort that religion gives people, which more often than not can be a thin blanket. The film’s most powerful scene comes when Shin-ae visits a prison to absolve the man who murdered her son and, to her surprise, discovers that he, too, is born again and has been forgiven for his sins by God. It’s apparent that Shin-ae’s urge to forgive comes with a desire for spiritual superiority, and with that taken away, she crumbles once again as she realizes that the comfort she’s chosen won’t even favor her over a child killer, which means it is about as sympathetic as life without said comfort.

But aside from the religion-is-a-drug association—which the film never explicitly makes—Lee isn’t out to disrespect God or religion, as those two entities are somewhat faceless and not given their own sentient voices in the movie. How it manages to do that is by avoiding the holy or supernatural aspects of God, and examines merely its worth as a guide in our mortal existence. Jeon Do-yeon impeccably sells Shin-ae’s conversion, making her abrupt change in character not only believable, but also compelling to watch.

Secret Sunshine is not exactly objective in this subject matter, however; it’s no coincidence that the opening shot of the film looks up at the vast abstractness of the blue sky and the closing shot points down at life growing from the soil of the Earth.

Bonus Features

Aside from a short and typical behind-the-scenes featurette, the only extra is a new video interview (presented in HD) with Lee Chang-dong that runs for 25 minutes and covers a variety of topics around the movie he’s looking back on. Though billed as an interview, it’s really just Lee talking about every aspect of Secret Sunshine, from his approach and intention concerning the subject matter to the casting decisions (he deliberately cast real Milyang locals for the supporting characters to maintain authenticity). This is intercut with scenes from the movie as he talks about them, so it acts somewhat like an abridged director’s commentary.

As is common with Criterion, the digital video transfer is not only superb, but also comes with an approval and supervision from the director and cinematographer of the film.

"Secret Sunshine (The Criterion Collection)" is on sale August 23, 2011 and is not rated. Drama. Directed by Lee Chang Dong. Written by Lee Chang-dong. Starring Song Kang Ho, Jeon Do Yeon.

Arya Ponto • Contributor

As former Editor of JPP, Arya likes to entertain peeps with his thoughts on pop culture, when he's not busy watching Battle Royale for the 200th time. He lives in Brooklyn with a comic book collection that's always the most daunting thing to move with, and writes for Artboiled.com.


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