Secret Sunshine

Secret Sunshine


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

It is unlikely you are going to see a more palpable portrayal of grief this year than Jeon Do-yeon's magnificent perfomance as Shin-ae in this Korean drama of the heart.

She moves with her son to the small town of Milyang, which means Secret Sunshine in Chinese, in an attempt to forge a new life for herself after the death of her husband. Her mantra, whenever anyone asks why she has moved from Seoul, is "My husband was born here."

Copy picture

On the first day in town, she strikes up a friendship with Jong-chan (Song Kang-ho), a soft-hearted garage mechanic, who falls for her hook, line and sinker. Just when you think this is the story of romance in unlikely circumstances, the film takes an abrupt and tragic turn. A single event sees Shin-ae face the abyss and darkness of an all-consuming grief.

The rest of the film is an exploration of this most raw of emotions and how a person deals, or doesn't deal, with it. The camerawork is straightforward and frequently mimics a documentary style, with long takes focussing on Shin-ae's breakdown. Also, it is at pains to look at the role of Christianity in South Korea, where around a quarter of the population now practice the religion. While holding back from ridiculing the faith, director Lee Chang-dong explores the role it has in helping people who find themselves emotionally on the edge, suggesting that any fire of hope has a biproduct of ash, as he picks at the notion of retribution and repentance to shattering effect.

Chang-dong spent many years as a novelist before moving into film and Secret Sunshine certainly has a literary sweep to it, which isn't always to its advantage. Although there is no disputing the tour-de-force performance by Jeon, who won the best actress award at Cannes this year, the film is overlong. Shin-ae's religious epiphany is utterly convincing, but, as she increasingly questions her faith, the plot loses its initial tautness and begins to wobble. It is at this point that the story, which was initially exhileratingly unpredictable, begins to settle too neatly into a familiar groove.

As a novel, this long nighttime of the soul could more easily be explored. On film, Chang-dong expects an almost super-human effort from Jeon to keep us with the protagonist. That Jong-chan is permanently relegated to the role of comic relief, places even more reliance on her performance. The ending, too, in its ambiguity, sadly leaves the viewer as bereft of resolution as Shin-ae.

Reviewed on: 02 Oct 2007
Share this with others on...
Secret Sunshine packshot
Exploration of grief in small-town Korea.

Director: Lee Chang-dong

Writer: Lee Chang-dong, based on the novel by Yi Chong-jun

Starring: Jeon Do-yeon, Song Kang-ho, Jo Yeong-jin, Kim Mi-kyung, Kim Yeong-jae, Ko Seo-hie

Year: 2007

Runtime: 142 minutes

Country: South Korea

Search database:

Related Articles:

Secrets behind the Sunshine