Saturday, December 5, 2009


Original Title: Milyang
Year: 2007
Director: Chang-dong Lee
Writer: Chang-dong Lee, Chong-jun Yi (novel)
Genre: Drama

Sin-ae moves with her son Jun to Miryang, the town where her dead husband was born. As she tries to come to herself and set out on new foundations, another tragic event overturns her life.

Two things on the top here...

One, I am not exactly sure how to review this film. The major plot points are really the shifts in the main character's "religious journey" instead of just events happening. For this reason, you may want to assume that there are spoilers contained within. I will try my best though to keep it spoiler-free.

To be fair though, it is difficult to spoil this film as the performances are the driving force as opposed to the actual events.

Secondly, the posters for this film are goddamn atrocious.

This is the most understated, quiet Kang-ho Song film I will review here. In trying to figure out what I was going to actually say about Secret Sunshine, I read a review with director Chang-dong Lee. You can read that here. In it, he explains the journey of faith and says that Song, while almost presented as a secondary character, is actually the main focus of his film.

Song plays Jong Chan, an average if a bit awkward guy living in the smaller city of Milyang. Almost immediately, he meets Shin-ae, played by another very popular Korean actress Do-yeon Jeon, when her car breaks down just outside of the city when she is moving herself and child there from Seoul.

Of course in my rookie ways, this is the first time for me seeing her.

From this point on, Jong follows Shin-ae around like a puppy following its master. No matter what she does, Jong is there to attempt to help her - even if she is pushing him away. We learn through conversation that Shin-ae is moving here because her recently deceased husband was born there and wanted to move back. We also learn through Shin-ae's brother that her husband was perhaps quite a bastard that cheated on her. So it is already curious that she wants to move here, as if confronting the source of her problems in Seoul will help her with closure?

An event occurs almost halfway through the film, just as Shin-ae is finally settling in and making friends in the new area, that sends her world into a tailspin. The only eventual solace she finds is at the church, with Jong following her close behind. She embraces her new religion and the friends and peace it brings her, and Jong is still there taking part alongside her, even as his friends poke fun.

Already in Shin-ae we see a drastic transformation, but just as quickly as her faith take shape, on a "trip of forgiveness I will call it, she loses her confidence and sense of peace completely as she spirals into a self-doubting, self-loathing mess. She has a breakdown...she is hospitalized...

And Jong is still there.
"His eye is always on her, but she keeps looking up at the sky. And when she walks, she can only go in one direction, straight ahead, she can't look back. He has to follow her from a distance - if she looked behind her, she would see him."

After Shin-ae finds religion, she never seems to lose faith that something is out there watching her. Only her relationship with whatever or whomever that is is constantly in flux. Her shifts and inner turmoil, as well as Jong's unrelenting desire and will to remain by her side in some way, however pathetic it may seem, are the true plot points of the film.

Being one of little or no faith in the supernatural, it was difficult for me to relate to Shin-ae's journey. However, Lee's portrayal is quite amazing as we see Shin-ae adopting this faith not necessarily for the right reasons. Really, who is to say what are the right reasons in this case, but her's seem simply self-serving and always on the verge of collapse in a way. Lee has these layers of her faith slowly unfold and reveal themselves as things move on.

Coming into this from my point of view, I see tragedy initially as Shin-ae latches on to Christianity. Immediately red flags went up for me, as I just had a feeling that things would not and could not possibly last. That may be an unfair assessment, but obviously my bias is attached there.

Perhaps someone of faith would view her spiritual journey as tragedy slowly building as she drifts farther away from her peace, love and forgiveness that she initially finds in her faith.

Jong is a character I more closely identify with and was more interested in. My heart went out to this guy and his unrequited love for Shin-ae. Almost always with a near-goofy smile on his face, he would follow her anywhere she wanted... or did not want. I saw this relationship in a way as her being God to him. Not literally, obviously, but his journey in faith was more an earthly one.

Immediately upon meeting Shin-ae, Jong is enamored with her and wants to devote his time to her in any way. Even when she pushes him away, Jong loves her in his own way, just as those of faith will still love God even when his will may seem very questionable. He rarely questions her, and she is shown as working almost independently of him despite his always being there.... a very deist portrayal if you want to look at this relationship as mirroring a relationship of faith. I thought it was fitting that Jong is a mechanic because he would love nothing more than to repair Shin-ae, but in the meantime he is willing to stand closeby and let her attempt that for herself first.

Secret Sunshine was a bit of a struggle for me. I don't necessarily mean that in a negative way, as I greatly respect what Lee has done. But it is a very delicate subject matter and the emotional trip is not always a simple one to immediately grasp. Only in writing this have I worked out for myself some of the directions I saw the characters moving in.

I really believe this is a film that bears repeated viewings. And I think my score would be higher if I were to watch this again. It is most definitely not a quick paced popcorn flick in any way shape or form, but I would highly recommend this to anyone willing to be "Jong Chan patient" with it.

Score: 7.5 / 10

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