Friday, April 24, 2009

God and the Cinema Part VI: Secret Sunshine

Chang-dong Lee’s Secret Sunshine was one of the very best films I saw at the 2007 Toronto Film Festival, and yet nearly two years later, it still does not have a North American release. It is still playing at small film festivals, and getting released in other countries, but as of yet I have no idea when or if the film will ever be released here – even on DVD. That’s sad, because it is one of the best films of recent years, and certainly has a lot to say about God. Nearly two years later, I still remember the film in vivid detail – and it still haunts me.

The film is about Shin-ae (Do-yeon Jeon), a recently widowed woman, now raising her son by herself. She decides to move to her husband’s hometown of Milyang, a small Korean town, because he always intended to go back. Milyang is a fairly nothing town – there is nothing much there and much of the populace has moved to Seoul or other big cities. Industry has shut down. But Shin-ae starts a small business as a piano teacher, and for a while she is happy. She makes one friend – an auto mechanic named Jong Chan (Kang-so Song), who we believe has a crush on her. He follows her everywhere, but not really in a creepy stalker way. She is approached repeatedly by local Christians who want her to join their prayer group. She brushes them off.

Tragedy strikes when her son is kidnapped. Eventually, the body of her son will be found dead. The killer is quickly captured and put in jail. Shin-ae is torn apart by this death, but finds solace when she finally agrees to attend a prayer meeting. God has spoken to her, and she becomes born again. She is happy. She goes to the prison to see her son’s killer to tell him she has forgiven him. He tells her that he has also had a religious conversion and found God. He has repented his actions, and God has forgiven him as well. This angers Shin-ae. How can God forgive this man before she does? He didn’t wrong God; he wronged her and her son? God shouldn’t have the power to forgive him before she does. Shia-ae then develops a new mission – punish God. She goes out and does mocks the Christians, has random sex in fields, and essentially completes loses it again.

Secret Sunshine, I think, reflects two truths about religion. One is the comfort that religion can bring, and one is the anger that it can inspire. At first, Shin-ae finds that comfort. Her belief in God allows her to move past her son getting murdered, and for a while, she is happy. But it is a short lived happiness. Religion provides nothing more than a band-aid for her pain. The pain is still there, and still real, inside of her.

Do-yeon Jeon is, to put it bluntly, amazing in the film. It was the best female performance I saw in 2007, and to be honest, I’m not sure I’ve seen a better one since. It is easy to see why she has won numerous awards for the movie, including the Best Actress prize at the Cannes film festival. She captures Shin-ae in four unique, complex stages. First as a grieving widow trying to make the best life she can for her son. Next as a frantic mother, first looking for her son, and then falling apart after his death. Then as the religious fanatic, finding comfort in God. Then as the woman who tries to punish God for his perceived transgressions against her. In the last scene in the movie (which I will go into a little later), she seems to have moved onto to yet another stage. But this is not a schizophrenic performance. It is one grounded in reality, and each transition seems natural.

Lost in all the praise for Do-yeon Jeon was an equally remarkable performance by Kang-so Song as her one real friend Jong Chan. At first, we think he is sort of sad and pathetic – following Shin-ae around like a lost puppy dog with a school boy like crush on her. In the first part, when she is un-religious, so is he. When she gets frantic and goes looking for her son, he’s there. When she joins the Christian group, so does he. When she leaves, so does he. He is mocked by both his friends, and hers, for most of the films with remarks about how in love with her he is. He doesn’t defend himself, or deny it. But there is a scene that completely flips our perception of him when Shin-ae decides to start punishing God. She tries to seduce him, and he rejects her advances. He seems disappointed in her, but he does not leave. You could argue, if you chose, to say that Jong Chan is really just a nice guy who doesn’t want to take advantage of Shin-ae. That he is in fact in love with her, but doesn’t want to have her that way. But I think the scene means something different. I think that Jong Chan represents God – at least how we would like God to be. He is always there for her, never judges her, and follows her everywhere. When she needs him, he’s there and when she turns her back on him, he still loves her. He is the ever loving, benevolent God. He does not step in to try and stop the pain in her life, or prevent her for making mistakes. But he loves her unconditionally and non-sexually.

I think ultimately though, that Secret Sunshine rejects the idea of looking to God for answers. In the final scene of the movie, Shin-ae is still lost and broken and angry – but she seems to have moved beyond her need for vengeance against the God who wronged her. She turns to Jong Chan, who is still there, for support. The camera then slowly pans away from them, finally settling on the ground strewn with toys. To me the message is clear. If you want answers and comfort in your life, you do not turn towards the heavens for them. You have to find them here, on earth.

Secret Sunshine is a masterpiece, pure and simple. The fact that it has not got North American distribution is both understandable, and regrettable. Here is a dark film – and a long one at nearly two and half hours. It does not meet the normal requirements for Asian cinema to be released over here – mainly that it isn’t an action a horror film. It is dark character study. It’s hard to imagine people flocking to the theaters to see it – but it’s a shame that serious filmgoers do not have a chance to see one of the best films of recent years. Hopefully, this will change soon.

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