The most devastating lies are the ones we tell ourselves during extended periods of heartbreak. Our vulnerability, our anguish signifies a very specific kind of isolated suffering, making the beliefs and identities of those around us appealing as psychological camouflage. In order to mask the pain, we hide in someone else’s belief system, someone else’s blatant contradictions. Every luminescent frame of Lee Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine addresses such a masochistic internal battle, examining in stirring detail why denial begets more denial. Through the troubled eyes of Shin-ae (Jeon Do-yeon in a titanic performance), a young widow returning to her husband’s hometown of Miryang, Korea with her young son, Jun (Seon Jung-yeob), Lee juxtaposes this self-flagellating cycle with the haunting power of physical and emotional façades. Appearances aren’t just deceiving for Shin-ae; they’re downright cunning, and Lee masterfully divides the narrative depending on which shifting identity has the strongest hold over Shin-ae.
The aura of rebirth: Shin-ae’s main pretense for moving from Seoul to the smaller town of Miryang is to start anew, fulfilling her deceased husband’s dream of returning home. But the fresh start seems determined to fail from the very beginning. Secret Sunshine opens with Shin-ae and Jun stranded on the side of the road outside of Miryang, their car having broken down minutes before. As Shin-ae paces up and down the country road talking frantically on her cellphone, Jun slouches in the passenger seat gazing up at the sky. Billowy white clouds drift over an ocean of blue, and graceful beams of sunlight peak through to the ground below. In moments like this, Lee’s emphasis on the grace of nature lingers like God’s omniscient viewfinder, hinting at Shin-ae’s daily yearning to begin again. But the perpetual beauty of these shots turns just as distrusting as any religious ideology or judgment, shrouding some of Shin-ae’s most frustrating experiences in effervescent warmth.
The aura of trust: After a mechanic named Jong-chan (Song Kang-ho) tows their car into town, Shin-ae and Jun settle into Miryang’s daily patterns. They go to work and school, both becoming indoctrinated in the community’s social fabric. Lee not only lulls Shin-ae and Jun into the rhythms of everyday life, but the viewer as well. Miryang is seen as an ordinary place filled with routines, conversations, and friendships, and Shin-ae’s early experiences actually reveal a few bits of unparalleled happiness. Jong-chan expectedly pursues Shin-ae, but never in an overtly romantic manner. Instead, he introduces Shin-ae to local politicians and businessmen trying to convince her to invest in local real estate. She humors Jong-chan’s incessant presence, playfully indulging his juvenile courtship by letting him act the fool. For a while, Secret Sunshine seems to be heading toward melodrama. But hidden under the communal artifice is an unseen menace, a tonal disruption the viewer can’t even suspect. Lee’s brand of rigorous cinema turns the mundane details of life into something deeply tragic. One moment, young Jun is happy enjoying school, giving speeches, and playing with friends, and the next he’s gone, taken by a kidnapper while Shin-ae has drinks with girlfriends at a local bar.
The aura of religion: While most filmmakers visualize murder for dramatic effect, Lee lingers on the emotional aftermath of a character’s death. Days later, Jun is found at the bottom of a reservoir, killed by his schoolteacher (Cho Young-jin) for no apparent reason other than a simple blackmail scheme gone wrong. Fractured by the sudden absence of her son, Shin-ae frantically searches for some semblance of rationalization for the crime, inevitably landing on the pedestal of religion for comfort. At her initial church service, Shin-ae devoutly sings from the lyrics projected on a gigantic screen, mirroring that fateful night she sang with friends at the bar while Jun was being kidnapped. Its fittingly ironic Lee sees religion as just another form of social karaoke, a predetermined lyric sheet where Shin-ae can find momentary solace. Her fundamental beliefs attract Jong-chan as well, who tries anything to be by her side. In a particularly conventional but disturbing moment, the two sing together in a religious choir outside the Miryang railway station, one sheep blindly leading another.
The aura of forgiveness: Secret Sunshine’s most lasting dramatic moment, a simple shot/reverse-shot sequence between the now devout Shin-ae and her son’s imprisoned killer, brutally toes the fine line between rage and sympathy. As Shin-ae attempts to forgive the killer for Jun’s death, the man spins the confession around on her, claiming he’s already obtained absolution from God by becoming “born again.” Shocked and disgusted, Shin-ae experiences an ideological tailspin further illuminating the distrusting nature of faith in her life. As a result, she acts out in various ways to undermine God’s will, attending a religious rally only to sneak into the audio room and replace the church music with a Korean pop song over the loudspeaker. “Lies, lies, lies,” the song screams, but the blasphemous act of protest only pushes the parishioners deeper into their haze of religious fundamentalism. By stripping away Shin-ae’s compulsory relationship with religion and faith, Lee brilliantly reveals a flummoxed soul unable to forgive, a wounded identity still trying to fend off madness.
The aura of victory: Shin-ae spends the final act of Secret Sunshine attempting to subvert the superiority of her religious friends and neighbors. She seduces the husband of one overtly self-righteous woman only to have her ploy once again backfire in her face. “I won’t lose to you,” Shin-ae begrudgingly says, looking up at the heavens to make sure God hears her defiant cry. But there’s no victory for Shin-ae, who seems to be constantly fighting the wrong battle at the wrong time. An act of self-mutilation pushes Shin-ae deeper into the realm of emotional uncertainty, making it seemingly impossible for her to find true closure for Jun’s death. Shin-ae’s religious contradictions and impotent protests have been crystallized as flipsides to the same malfunctioning quest to cure an unfathomable loss. During the film’s wonderful final scene, Jong-chan cuts Shin-ae’s hair in the bright sunlight, the world around them virtually silent. It’s as if Shin-ae has finally shed the first layer of denial, finally giving in to the grieving process. But the stunning visual clarity of this moment doesn’t necessarily guarantee closure.
Secret Sunshine finds immutable grace in all of Shin-ae’s suffocating delusions, never judging her torrential downpour of doubt no matter how self-destructive life becomes. If anything, Lee sees her protracted torment as a rotation of different perspectives and identities, like a figurative Rubix Cube manically trying to find a match. Thankfully, the film spins these ideas around without landing on narrative finality, forcing us to explore Shin-ae’s tumult by referencing our own layers of artifice, our own self-taught deceptions. In its quest to unveil the supreme cost of living a lie, Secret Sunshine asks the viewer the same question Shin-ae asks of God during one of her most vulnerable and painful moments: “Can you see?”
With all of its striking natural light and ambient sounds, Secret Sunshine was born for 1080p Blu-ray. In this director-approved transfer, Criterion has captured Lee Chang-dong and cinematographer Cho Yong-kyu's majestic visual palette, allowing the blues and greens of their compositions a wonderful clarity and resonance. The opening shot of Jun staring through the windshield up at the sky is beautifully calibrated. But because most of the film takes place during the day, the white subtitles are a bit difficult to read at times. Overall, though, this is a carefully rendered transfer of a stunning film. The 5.1 DTS-HD MA soundtrack allows the viewer to hear every leaf blowing in the wind and each cricket chirping in the background. The dense layers of sound immerse us in Shin-ae's increasingly fragile subjective state, providing a series of audio cues charting her descent into madness.
The disc is light on extras, but includes a telling interview with director Lee, who touches on the importance of Miryang as a location, the relevance of it's poetic name ("secret sunshine"), and his interest in the power of small details and ordinary lives. In a short featurette compiled of on-set interviews with Lee, actors Jeon Do-yeon and Song Kang-ho, each describes their experience filming Secret Sunshine. During one great moment, Jeon confesses, "I was afraid to take the role. As for her [Shin-ae] range of emotions in the script, I thought they were unfathomable." The film's U.S. theatrical trailer is also included, along with a booklet featuring a thoughtful analysis of Lee's cinema of lucidity by film critic Dennis Lim.
A powerful anti-sermon on the mount, Lee Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine illuminates the transcendent grace inherent to one woman’s crippling dependence on born-again identities.