EmptyCANNES -- "Secret Sunshine" (Miryang) from Lee Chang-dong, one of Korea's leading filmmakers, is a brave and unsettling film that changes course several times, on each occasion catching the viewer off-guard. At the focus of his deceptive, seemingly small story is a question of human suffering and how one perseveres in life.
The film features outstanding performances by its two leads: Jeon Do-yeon as the story's central figure and Song Kang-ho, probably Korea's most popular actor at the moment, here playing more of a supporting role. These will help "Secret Sunshine" to win acclaim at festivals following its Cannes debut. Theatrical acceptance should come in art houses nearly everywhere.
Jeon plays Lee Shin-ae, whose husband died in a car accident. The attractive widow moves from Seoul to her husband's hometown of Miryang with her young son to begin life anew. A car breakdown as she nears the city introduces her to friendly auto mechanic Kim Jong-chan (Song).
He sparks to the pretty woman immediately, but she finds his many attempts to ingratiate himself and help her with problems almost annoying. His own mother labels him a "loser," and from outward appearances -- a man no longer young who is unmarried and too eager to please -- you understand her viewpoint.
Lee opens a piano academy and has some success, but she remains an outsider to townspeople who regard her with curiosity. The movie then abruptly breaks away from a course seemingly headed toward dramatic romance into something of a thriller. Then, abruptly again, the film turns into a study of the deepest human despair, where Lee seeks solace from wherever it might come -- from born-again Christianity to suicide.
Writer-director Lee is willing to let his heroine seem foolish and self-centered at times. She is a very human, very flawed character, just as her ardent admirer is an unlikely male figure in such a movie. For all the dramatic turns of events, this is an utterly natural story with such events unfolding with the suddenness of real life. The heroine is so emotionally frazzled that twice she nearly hits pedestrians with her car. When she rushes to the telephone, she trips in her own doorway.
As the movie progresses, Jeon gradually and subtlety shows the gathering strength within the emotionally delicate woman. The struggle at times makes her seem like a deer caught in headlights. Yet when she regains her composure, a determined and resolute woman reappears.
The portrait of the evangelical Korean Christian community is accomplished without condescension. The filmmaker views its members as people who have found a peace and serenity in their lives to which they cling with possibly misguided fervor. The heroine too finds a refuge within its fold from the ravages of fate, albeit briefly, only to feel betrayed by the very God who has delivered this joy to her.
The film ends on a neutral note as if Lee were telling a story with no real end. It's a life and at some point the story must stop, but the life continues with the future never entirely certain. This is a considerable achievement: To offer up a mix of movie genres yet make a story come together as a perfectly fitting and comprehensible whole.
Cinema Service presents in association with CJ Entertainment a Pine House Film production
Screenwriter-director: Lee Chang-Dong
Story by: Yi Chung-jun
Producer: Hanna Lee
Executive producers: Kim Joo-sung, Na Hyo-seung
Director of photography: Cho Yong-kyu
Production designer: Sihn Jeom-hui
Music: Christian Basso
Costume designer: Cha Sun-Young
Editor: Kim Hyun
Lee Shin-ae: Jeon Do-yeon
Kim Jong-chan: Song Hang-ho
Running time -- 142 minutes
No MPAA rating