In Lee Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine, the idea of God is put to the test as the film questions His existence in a world where sinners and victims obtain forgiveness in equal doses.
The film opens with a view of the sky as seen through a car, the clear blue and puffiness of the clouds can’t help but infect us with promise as we meet Shin-ae (Jeon Do-yeon) and her little son Jun (Seon Jung-yeop). They are traveling towards Miryan, the hometown of Shin-ae’s late husband, looking to start fresh after his death. When we first see them, Jun is throwing what seems to be a tantrum while his mother asks him to behave. Soon we realize that this is all part of a strange game they play in which the child pushes his mom’s patience, just to be rewarded with a hug or a kiss after he behaves properly again.
Such behaviors, coming from some of the most unexpected characters, become a recurring theme, perhaps as the director wonders exactly where the role of the divine ends and where our humanity determines how we’ll act. As the mother and son begin to adjust to their new life in a small town (they were coming from Seoul), the locals perceive them with subtle hostility and begin to talk about them. In the midst of this all we see how Shin-ae tries to keep to herself (agnosticism at its least subtle) while others need to proselytize around her. “For unhappy people like yourself God’s love is crucial,” the town pharmacist tells her.
Therefore, from early on in the film, we begin preparing for what can only be a dark future. Why are all these people bracing Shin-ae for some sort of tragedy?
This feeling of dread materializes halfway through the movie in a turn that sends Shin-ae’s life down a spiral of pain and grief. For a minute we begin to ask ourselves if, in fact, the entire town had been conspiring against the strangers or if, in fact, all of these happenings were random coincidences and nothing more than that. While the audience might question this, it’s clear that the director knew what he was going for. In a fascinating interview included in the DVD, Lee expresses how the movie was meant to be about questions and how, for him, the character of Shin-ae had to be someone with a “will strong enough to reject” notions of religious revelation.
The latter part of the film gives us a structure that very well resembles romantic melodrama as Shin-ae, broken down by insistence and pain, begins a torrid affair with God. It’s interesting to note that throughout the film, the heroine’s life is marked by missing male presences. Whether it be her dead husband (who leaves her with some heavy emotional baggage), her little son and his wicked games, or eventually the figure of God, she’s always being influenced by men. The one steady man in her life is the lovelorn mechanic Jong Chan (Song Kang-ho), who becomes smitten by this mysterious woman and clings to her, to the point of becoming her guardian angel.
Secret Sunshine, however never truly becomes a film about religion, instead it’s an exploration of faith and why some find the need for it. Shin-ae’s path from devoted believer (the scene of her conversion is so raw that it’s painful to watch) to heartbroken avenger is revelatory, because it encompasses entire existences into a limited time frame.
Jeon’s performance, with all of its affected silence, is only more effective because it goes against our understanding of pain and existential wandering. The director gives his leading lady a chance to suffer in a way one would’ve guessed only Lars von Trier made his actresses suffer. Lee Chang-dong explains how the relationship between a director and his actors resembles what is usually regarded as the god-to-humans link, and how, in order to get good performances from his cast, he lets them just be and feel.
Secret Sunshine is not afraid to ask the tough questions. When Shin-ae realizes that god’s forgiveness comes in equal doses to those who make others suffer as well as to their victims, the film does the impossible: instead of turning into an obliterating study of destruction, it slowly reveals itself as an observer. The film’s pace and intentions may not always be clear to the audience and to be fair, you shouldn’t need bonus supplements to fully grasp its intent, although being from Criterion, the extras more than prove their worth. “Because this film is about life, I could not allow it to be special” says Lee and once again his statement reminds us that our expectations and their actual repercussions might not entirely be in our hands.