Story: Shin-ae (Jeon Do-yeon) lost her husband in a car accident. She wants to finally overcome her pain and
start a new life in the hometown of her husband, Milyang. When she is on her way to town, along with her son Jun,
the motor of her car suddenly dies. She gets help from automobile mechanic Jong-chan (Song Kang-ho), who starts to
have interest in the spouseless mother. He often accompanies her in Milyang and shows her around.
Shin-ae opens a piano school and slowly starts to get used to her new life, even though there are already some rumors spreading in town about her and her past. There are no secrets in Milyang and therefore it's also known by everyone that Shin-ae wants to buy a piece of land. This arouses the interest of a stranger, who kidnaps Jun and demands a ransom from Shin-ae. The mother doesn't inform the police, but instead plays according to the rules of the kidnapper. However, she never gets to see her son again...
It doesn't take long and the lifeless body of little Jun is found. The police doesn't have a hard time in finding the culprit. The murderer is send to jail, but Shin-ae is a broken individual. She is on the brink of a nervous breakdown, but she eventually finds salvation in Christian religion. Yet, after a while she realizes that neither god nor Jong-chan, who fondly cares for her, can be of help for her to overcome the pain she suffers.
Review: With "Secret Sunshine" director Lee Chang-dong created a work that is praised by many as a little
masterpiece. After his works "Peppermint Candy" and "Oasis" this one is said to be his most ambitious drama, and those same
critics also couldn't stop lauding the director's genius. I can't see why. The whole hype about Lee's movie
is absolutely unjustified, because even though this is not a bad drama at all, it still lacks too much and has too
many flaws to deserve to be Korea's entry to the Academy Awards in the category "Best foreign language movie". But
"Secret Sunshine" nonetheless got the country's approval.
Very courageous director Lee focuses around the influence of christian religion on Korea's culture and its people, which brought him protest from the church, because of his caricatural portrayal. However, in its core the film deals with the life of an individual, that wanders through a valley of pain and is looking for salvation.
The true strength of "Milyang" (which is the movie's original title) is the story revolving around Shin-ae, who is always in the film's spotlight. We are introduced to her life and her background, and accompany her on a journey that is full of suffering and sorrow. Shin-ae comes to Milyang to finally cope with the death of her husband, and to begin a new life on her own. But fate doesn't grant her a life of joy.
The abduction of Jun has some characteristics of a thriller at first, but soon we realize that this part of the story isn't unnecessarily stretched throughout the film, but solely depicts a turning point, from which on Shin-ae starts to change. The culprit is apprehended surprisingly unceremoniously, and Shin-ae also doesn't arouse the feeling in us that she might turn this movie into a revenge thriller. On the contrary - she asks for salvation and finds it in religion, where she gets the chance to get reborn as an individual.
This transformation and overcoming of suffering doesn't hold up for long, however. At some point Shin-ae is even willing to forgive the man, who ruined her life and took the one of her child. She visits the kidnapper in prison and has to find out, that the prisoner is doing quite well. He himself has also found its salvation in God's hands, who already forgave him his sins. This is by far the strongest scene in the film, as Shin-ae feels betrayed, and not without a reason. How can God forgive him his sins just like that? This was supposed to be something just she should have had the right to do. And how can god allow, that the murderer of her son finds inner peace? This scene is loaded with emotions and is also full of thoughts and material to work with, which is all conveyed in a very subtle way.
This event changes Shin-ae once again and plants the seed of growing anger towards a seemingly hypocritic religion in her. Her disappointment and rage reach its peak when during a meeting of the religious community, she plays a song through a stereo, in which the words "lies, lies, lies" clearly reflect her opinion.
In fact, the religious meetings are depicted somewhat comic-like and cliché-loaden. The community's members consist mainly of middle-aged housewives, who don't have anything else to do in their free time and turn religion into a circle of singing housewives, like we wouldn't have expected it otherwise from karaoke-obsessed Koreans. Still, the main motives of the movie, which the director clearly puts emphasis on, are guilt, forgiveness and salvation. If Shin-ae will actually experience latter is questionable, because the viewer is always just waiting for fate dealing its next stroke on her. Yet, we are hoping that all might lead to an Happy End for Shin-ae, eventually, even though we don't really expect this, as she starts to behave more and more odd, seemingly beginning to lose her mind. The only one who might save her is Jong-chan, but he always gets rejected by her, and this although his feelings for her are quite evident. He even joins the religious community out of love for her.
That brings us to the upside of the film, which is definitely its cast. Jeon Do-yeon's ("You are my Sunshine") versatile, honest portrayal of a single mother steeped in pain, who loses her only child and gets broken by the suffering she has to endure, earned her the award of best actress at the Cannes Film Festival, and rightly so. Still, the achievements of Song Kang-ho ("Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance", "The Host"), who plays a very likeable character, and who is also responsible that the film isn't just sad and dramatic all the time, don't need to hide behind Jeon Do-yeon's work. In one special scene you can see for yourself why Song is such a great actor. That is when Jong-chan has a sudden outburst of fury, which just doesn't seem suitable to his character, but which also becomes the reason why this scene feels especially credible.
The movie's weak points are obvious. The pacing isn't quite what you would call appealing. Sometimes Lee just takes too much time in depicting what he wants to show us, which leads to seemingly endless shots of grieving. If Jeon Do-yeon's acting weren't that superior the film easily would have run the risk to be simply tedious. The pictures, even though composed a bit more colorful than what we are used to from Lee, are quite dull, thus giving the movie the special note it needs. Still they don't stand out in any respect. Especially annoying, at least in my opinion, is the use of a slightly shaky hand camera, which gives the movie something unnecessarily amateurish.
Besides the slow pacing, there is also to be criticized that the film raises some very interesting questions and adresses some appealing topics, yet never grants us any answers. That's also the reason why the ending is pretty unsatisfying. To leave the answers to certain questions to the viewer's imagination or deduction is a nice tool to bestow more meaning upon a film, but it also feels like a cheap trick, if it doesn't work out. Which is the case here, and makes watching quite frustrating in the end.
As already said, "Secret Sunshine" surely isn't a bad movie, but it is far from being the masterpiece many critics want us to make believe it is. Nevertheless, fans of tranquil and characterdriven dramas will find Lee's movie to be likeable.