Before being sidetracked by a gig as South Korea's Minister of Foreign Culture, Lee Chang-dong had helmed two of his country's most compelling dramas in recent years: Peppermint Candy, a brilliant mash-up of Forrest Gump and Irréversible that's superior to both, and Oasis, which opens with a sociopath raping a disabled mute and blossoms into one of the decade's most delirious romances. Relieved of his administrative duties, Lee returns to the director's chair with Secret Sunshine, which earned its lead Jeon Do-yeon the Best Actress prize at this year's Cannes. The award was unsurprising: Among his countrymen, only Hong Sang-soo matches Lee's exceptional handling of actors. Lee has a rare gift for depicting how the minor dissonance of everyday interactions eventually explodes into public displays of rage and despair, and performances are critical to his emotionally bracing storytelling, which typically plants slightly unhinged social misfits in stiflingly conformist environments.
Secret Sunshine, while being no exception to this model, differs from its predecessors by burying its fomenting despair within a more mundane narrative; gone is Peppermint Candy's backward chronology and Oasis's digressive flights of fancy. Instead there's Jeon as Shin-ae, a single mother moving into the conservative hometown of her deceased husband, seeking to start a new life with her young son and a modest living as a piano teacher. Her awkward streak becomes apparent when she makes pleasantries with a local shopkeeper only to bluntly criticize the shop's drab decor. Instances of petty improprieties only accumulate, building a sense of peripheral menace all the more unnerving for being unattached to any overt foreshadowing of things to come. This is possibly the best hour of filmmaking in Lee's career to date.
Inevitably the narrative shoe must drop, and when it does it kicks poor Shin-ae into an emotional rollercoaster, offering her solace among evangelical Christians, only to have Shin-ae reject their company following an abortive act of forgiveness toward a past transgressor. The second half entails her own series of acts against a god she has come to deeply resent; unfortunately, these violations (replacing prayer meeting music with an angry pop song, seducing one of the clergy) feel more like over-familiar reactionary pranks than illuminations of her character. It's closer to second-rate Lars von Trier than to first-rate Fassbinder.
It's hard to reconcile the temporal and emotional virtuosity of the first half with the dissipation into rote spitefulness of the second. One saving grace throughout is the affable Song Kang-ho as an auto mechanic so infatuated with Shin-ae that he even joins her at church meetings and stays by her side during her downward spiral. His constancy provides the counterpoint to her instability, which may suggest a kind of chauvinism underlying Lee's sympathies toward his fallen woman. However, the thoughtful standoff that concludes the film emphasizes Shin-ae's coming to terms with her own capacity to choose her life's path, as well as those she may call upon for help.