Secret Sunshine (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★
Lee Chang-dong’s story of loss ends with our protagonist looking in the mirror and cutting her own hair. A haircut may end up good or, well, a disaster but one thing is certain: Hair grows back. This is a curious but not entirely unexpected note to close the story for the material appears to track the progression of life: the relative highs and lows, the uneventful episodes, surprising zeniths, and darkest nadirs that crush the soul into a million pieces. “Secret Sunshine” takes its viewers through a long journey and takes many risks in the process. It is not for everyone.
It begins with what is supposed to be a new chapter. With her young boy in tow, Shin-ae (Jeon Do-yeon) decides to move to Miryang, the birthplace of her late husband. He perished in a car accident, and although it is not stated how long it had been, we can glean from the widow and the son’s sorrowful eyes that they have not had enough time to mourn. And so a part of us feel that the move from Seoul to Miryang is an act of escape. Shin-ae is optimistic that by sheer will and energy, the blank slate will pave the way for her and her son to thrive. Little does she know that her son will be kidnapped, compounding another loss.
The material breaks from the typical and expected three-act structure; this one offers four. The third is most interesting precisely because of its polarizing nature: Shin-ae turning to religion to put a band-aid over her anguish and depression. The easy route would have been to show faith and religion as preposterous, a sham, a form of socially accepted collective insanity that is insidious enough to affect nearly every aspect of our lives, from education and morality to ethics and politics. Instead, the film takes the time to demonstrate the positive and negative qualities of faith, the former angle more overt while the latter requires a bit of critical thinking.
Thus, it challenges the viewer on two fronts: a. the dramatic plot surrounding our protagonist relative to her place in a community that can be kind and cruel in equal measure and b. the messages it wishes to convey about organized religion and how, although it can be helpful, it is not the panacea that its followers purport for it to be. Like the annual cold virus, sometimes it is better to ride it out, to allow the body to do what it has evolved to do. Just as hair grows back with time. However, contrary to the popular saying, time may not heal all. Sometimes we simply must decide to move forward with scarring. Such is life.
As previously mentioned, the story is not all doom and gloom. Shin-ae earns an admirer in a local mechanic named Jong-chan (Song Kang-ho), a thirty-nine-year-old man who is a walking ray of sunshine. It seems as though he has made it his mission for Shin-ae and her son to grow comfortable in their new home and acclimate with their community. Whatever Shin-ae is into, he is there to follow. His dedication is noticeable and admirable… But it can also be a bit annoying and creepy, depending how you wish to see it.
And I think that is one of the most beautiful aspects of “Secret Sunshine,” an occasionally cynical story of awakening: it is up to the viewers to decide from which angle, or angles, they wish to absorb the tale from. It presents the complex reality of colorful personalities while at the same time the more minute details relating to the questions beginning with “why” are open to interpretation. Prepare to engage; you will not be spoon-fed.