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Jeon Do-yeon in SECRET SUNSHINE (Photo: IFC Films)

Directed by Lee Chang-dong
Produced by
Hanna Lee Written by Lee Chang-dong, original story by Yi Chong-jun
Released by IFC Films
Korean with English subtitles
South Korea. 142 min. Not Rated
Jeon Do-yeon & Song Kang-ho

Writer/director Lee Chang-dong has served as Korea’s minister of culture and tourism, but his scathing looks at small-minded conformism in Korean society, including Oasis (2002) and Poetry (in U.S. theatres in 2011) would hardly encourage visitors. Secret Sunshine, now getting an American release since touring international film festivals in 2007, is also set in a very specific Korean town. This slow building portrait of yet another damaged woman struggling against community expectations reveals the universality of his excoriations.

Lee Shin-ae (an extraordinary Jeon Do-yeon) is damaged before she moves from Seoul to Miryang (translated in Chinese as “a place with good sunshine”). On the outside, she seems cheerfully determined and creatively entrepreneurial, moving into a house, establishing herself as a piano teacher, settling her young son into school, making friends, and even considering investing in land.

From her first arrival, a bespectacled mechanic at the local garage, Jong-chan (Song Kang-ho), is an endlessly annoying and persistent suitor, but at least he isn’t as leeringly macho as his buddies. He gets her to explain why she would come to a town losing population—her late husband was one of those who left, and she has a notion of connecting her son to his father’s nostalgic memories. She tolerates Jong’s chatty attentions, especially when she needs a ride, and he continues coming around, even when her visiting brother warns him that he’s just not her type. Jong lets the ever nosey and gossipy neighbors know her tragic tale, and they comment and criticize behind her back.

Then she’s a victim of an awful crime ending in tragedy. Distraught, she desperately looks for succor. In what is in effect act two, she throws herself into an ever-recruiting Christian evangelical group, and Jeon Do-yeon’s change in emotional demeanor—becoming robotically peaceful—is startlingly spooky. The lessons she learns about dealing with grief are somewhat similar to those seen in the current film Rabbit Hole, but her path to forgiveness, of the perpetrator and herself, is far rockier (made messily complicated by hints of abuse in her past). Jeon Do-yeon dramatically shifts gears again into a total breakdown, and then again into cold revenge mode.

It does seem as if her travails will never end, especially when through it all the interfering mechanic cheerfully pops up, too genially hopeful that each new difficulty the widow faces will make her turn to him. It would have been too easy, though probably more satisfying in the story, for him to be a bad guy. Instead, his cluelessness is as emblematic of shallowness as she is of an individual who just has to manage to go on living, but as little more than a zombie. Nora Lee Mandel
December 20, 2010



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