Festival Film Review: Secret Sunshine at the BFI London Film Festival

Secret Sunshine

Caution: this post contains spoilers.

It was slightly disappointing to see Screen One of the Odeon West End (seating capacity: 500) somewhat under half full for the London premiere of Lee Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine last Monday. By contrast, No Mercy for the Rude, a film which (from its description at least) is much more in the hackneyed Asia Extreme mainstream, was fully booked for the following night, albeit at the much smaller ICA screen (seating capacity: 185).

At two hours twenty minutes, it’s a long film, but somehow time didn’t seem to drag. The slowest part was the time up to the point when Shin-ae suffers the calamity which sets off her downward spiral. The nature of the calamity itself was guessable from the thinly-veiled spoilers in the various reviews available on the internet; and this early section only went slowly because those spoilers led me to expect the event to occur much earlier than it actually did. Probably if I had not known what was going to happen the pacing would have been about right. From that point onwards, the film is deeply absorbing.

Unlike his earlier films, it’s difficult to see what, if anything, Lee is critiquing in this film. Green Fish was about modernity and Korea’s accelerated economic development; Peppermint Candy revisited some of these themes, adding in some of Korea’s troubled political history. Oasis, while addressing the marginalised in society was more about the hypocrisy of two individual families and how those families took advantage of their two unfortunate members. Secret Sunshine continues that trend of focusing on individuals rather than looking at grand trends in society as a whole.

PrayersYes, like all Lee’s films, there are elements in this film which firmly place it in modern Korea — the fake diploma casually hung on the wall which raises the question of how many more Shin Jeong-ahs remain to be discovered at every level of academia, the land speculation by individuals who can’t seem to afford it, the expressions on the faces of the worshippers at the revivalist church which could have been taken straight from the Associated Press photos (example right) of the church that sent those missionaries to Afghanistan.

But the film isn’t “about” any of these elements, and while much of the action takes place among the evangelical Christian community the film doesn’t seem to be critiquing it. To me, the film is an unbiased presentation of that style of religion1. Some might be repelled by the pushy pharmacist who offers Shin-ae an evangelical tract on their first meeting; but equally Shin-ae’s unasked-for advice to a shopkeeper to give her shop a lick of paint could be regarded as similarly tactless.

Secret Sunshine: visiting prison
The prison visit: the dramatic climax of the film

Both pieces of advice turn out to be right, but for Shin-ae her conversion was not deep-rooted enough to withstand its first test: the prison visit. Jeon Do-yeon’s masterful portrayal of this pivotal moment in the story was enough on its own to win her that Cannes award. Her facial expression said it all — her shock, her disappointment, the fact that whatever it was she had hoped to get from the visit had cruelly been taken away from her — and her subsequent explanation of her trauma at the prayer meeting was unnecessary for the viewer, though very necessary for the Christians who had drawn their own natural (but incorrect) conclusion from her behaviour after the visit.

Moments of humour occasionally lighten the film, for example when Shin-ae changes the background music for the outdoor prayer meeting, or when one of Shin-ae’s friends says she might consider becoming a Christian in order to get out of performing ancestral rights. Song Kang-ho as the big-hearted little-guy who befriends Shin-ae also provides some light relief. But this film is centred on the traumas of one woman, and while it doesn’t tackle some of the big societal issues, like all Lee’s films it provides plenty of food for thought and is likely to linger in the mind for much longer than your average mainstream blockbuster.

  1. The only overt criticism seems to be levelled at the implied hypocrisy of one of the church elders, who seemed to be rather too well-prepared for the impromptu liaison with one of his flock. This I took to be a piece of comedy rather than intended as part of a consistently hostile portrayal []

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