Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Lee Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine

Some small towns are friendly and inviting. Miryang in rural South Korea is not one of them. Residents of this burg could safely be termed stand-offish. Nonetheless, a young widowed mother tries to make a new start in her late husband’s former provincial hometown in Lee Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York at the IFC Center.

Frankly, Lee Shin-ae’s late husband was no prince, but she honors his memory anyway. Despite the closeness of their relationship, her son Jun naturally still misses his father. She assumes Miryang’s slower pace of life will better suit them, but the town does not exactly open its arms to her, aside from Kim Jong-chan, the smitten local mechanic, who tries way too hard. Yet, just as she starts to find her place, tragedy strikes again.

Secret is not simply a study of grief and loss. It is also a razor-sharp depiction of Korea’s burgeoning Evangelical Christian movement. Indeed, at her lowest moment Lee Shin-ae either finds solace with, or falls prey to, Miryang’s Evangelical community. Rather than launching a clumsy broadside, director Lee (ROK’s former Minister of Culture and Tourism) takes a more patient approach, really burrowing into that world and letting its characters speak for on its behalf relatively credibly. However, he eventually lowers the boom with some rather thorny questions regarding the convenience of forgiveness and grace.

Nobody gets off easy in Secret, least of all the audience for its angst-filled 142 minutes. However, there is no denying its artistic integrity and the remarkable work from its primary leads. Jeon Do-yeon justly took best actress honors at Cannes for her performance as Lee Shin-ae. She might be a hard character to embrace, but Jeon makes her acutely human, taking her through nearly every extreme emotion an average person can ever expect to experience. Song Kang-ho (recognizable in the U.S. from Korean imports like The Host and Thirst) is appropriately cringe-inducing as the loveless Kim. A better than average young actor, Seon Jung-yeop is also quite convincing as Jun, a basically good kid with some understandable issues.

Secret is an uncompromising film (bordering on the overwhelming), dominated by Jeon’s fearless performance. While it very definitely offers a hot-button critique of current Korean social trends, it is fundamentally rooted in universal human dramas. Recommended for those accustomed to high art-house fare but not predisposed to depression, Secret opens tomorrow (12/22) in New York at the IFC Center.