Secret Sunshine is one of South Korea’s most highly acclaimed movies (its star, Jeon Do-yeon, won 2007’s best actress award at Cannes, and it is one of only two South Korean movies distributed by the Criterion Collection) and also one I hesitate to recommend to casual movie-viewers. Still, it is one I hope anyone would give a chance. Relentless in its heaviness, the movie begins with a woman, Shin-ae (Jeon), moving with her son to her late husband’s hometown, Miryang, where she has never been before (when written in Chinese characters, “Miryang” means “secret sunshine.”). So as not to spoil any of the bends in this shifting, unpredictable plot, I will simply say that not long after after arriving, Shin-ae, whose husband recently died in a car accident, faces another devastating tragedy, and from there, bad things continue to happen to her. The story is harsh and emotionally demanding, but its writer and director, Lee Chang-dong, who adapted the screenplay from a short story by Yi Chong-jun, avoids making a cruel, sadistic movie. Shin-ae’s extreme circumstances preclude the possibility of a happy ending, but Lee makes his compassion apparent by setting her on a trajectory toward another endpoint, whether she arrives there or not, that’s more elusive and unknowable than happiness—grace.
After rewatching Secret Sunshine recently, I thought of Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By the Sea, from last year, and was struck that I hadn’t associated the two movies earlier. They both are centered on protagonists whose livelihoods are ruined by sudden tragedies and tell their stories by looking at the ways they cope, the ways they manage to get through daily life. The movies differ, however, in their metaphysical concerns: while Manchester By the Sea stays in the realm of the physical, examining its tragedy in terms of the individual, family, and community, Secret Sunshine responds to its tragedies with questions of a cosmic order; what Shin-ae suffers through is not simply the pain of loss but also the struggle to make sense of a world that allows such painful events to occur. Though Manchester By the Sea was one of last year’s finest movies, and metaphysically larger does not mean better, this contrast between the two leaves me seeing a limitation in Lonergan’s ambition and, in turn, admiring Lee that much more for his quietly sublime achievement.
That achievement is a movie that is at once a religious movie and not. With calamities that seem ordered and planned, as though the workings of a higher power, and at the same time random and meaningless, the movie’s central fascination is not the question of whether God exists but what the very premise of God’s existence means. What distinguishes a universe with an unknowable, at times seemingly cruel or indifferent God, from a universe with no God? What difference is there between secret sunshine shining down on us and no light at all? It is in the nature of these questions that they be asked with restraint and humility, a lack of presumption that film can reveal such grand, spiritual truths. Through this restraint, through an interest in letting this story present itself rather than attach meaning to it, Lee allows his movie to accumulate its spiritual potency.
From this approach as presenter rather than truth-teller, Lee, and also Jeon, keep Shin-ae at a distance. Unlike the protagonist of Manchester By the Sea, played by Casey Affleck as a likable man despite his antisocial behavior, a man whose circumstances, though slowly revealed, are ultimately clear-cut and comprehensible, Shin-ae is an enigma. Similar to the protagonists in other movies I’ve written on—Woman Is the Future of Man, A Girl at My Door, the movies of Park Chan-ok—her background is largely unknown. Lee forgoes revealing background information we would want to know about Shin-ae and in effect prevents us from conclusively judging her. Her behavior among the residents of Miryang is standoffish, but with only vague hints to explain where this behavior is coming from, we can’t say how it reflects on her character.
Her actions invite curiosity rather than judgment. In one early scene, Shin-ae enters a shop in downtown Miryang to inform the owner about the piano school she has opened. After they finish their brief exchange, Shin-ae turns to go but stops and gives some unsolicited constructive criticism. She says that since this shop doesn’t get much sun, this shop-owner should redecorate with brighter colors so that the store would look more appealing and more customers would come in. It is an odd, unreadable moment. The shop-owner takes offense but doesn’t express it and responds politely. Shin-ae plainly didn’t mean offense, and moreover, despite its tactlessness, the suggestion seems like a sound one—it is not inconceivable even that following it would mean the difference between this small business failing and succeeding. This suggestion comes in a passing moment, but one that leaves an impression. It shows the distance with which Shin-ae will be kept from us, how we should not expect to know the reasoning behind her decisions or assume we should like her.
Another curiosity, this one central to the movie, is the question of why Shin-ae moves to her husband’s hometown in the first place. It is easy to suppose that this decision was part of an unhealthy way of mourning, but we don’t know what considerations went in to making this decision. Rather than something driving her towards Miryang, we sense something driving her away from Seoul, where she came from. We don’t know what her life was like there, but we can see, in vague allusions, in the heaviness Jeon carries as Shin-ae, that something outside of her husband’s death weighs on her. What was her life like in Seoul? What explains her standoffishness? Could she be managing the best she can in response to impossible circumstances? Could the best future for her be the one in Miryang, where nobody knows her?
These questions are raised quietly and are swept away as the story’s drama unfolds. It is when we entertain that thought though, that Miryang represented the happiest possible future for Shin-ae, that we can appreciate the extent of the world’s cruelty that she must see: if she had never moved to Miryang, the tragedy that befalls her there would never have occurred. It is the sort of event that could turn a believer away from God, but Shin-ae, a non-believer, desperate and struggling in her grief, walks in to an evangelical prayer gathering and finds catharsis there. After that, she becomes a born-again Christian.
This transformation is drastic, and with it too we are held back from comfortably judging Shin-ae. (In a testament to the skill that earned Jeon Cannes’s best actress award, this transformation is one of not two but three in which Shin-ae essentially becomes a new person, all psychologically plausible.) This new identity is unstable; it is with effort that she pushes down her previous self to prevent her pain from overwhelming her. Seeing this new her is troubling, not because turning towards religion is a regrettable, but because the identity she is projecting appears inauthentic. At the same time, we can’t see what alternative way of coping would be better. Faith, prayer, and Christian community provide a source of relief, something easy to imagine as having been impossible for Shin-ae in her circumstances.
It is true, or ought to be true in the argument in favor of faith, that it makes you feel better, makes your days happier and provides a source of strength. For faith to be faith though, rather than a therapeutic device, it must transcend the material to the spiritual, must be something that you carry through hard times and good. This point plays out in sequence in which Shin-ae goes to an extreme length to demonstrate the breadth of her capacity for forgiveness. We can imagine, with the benefit of the doubt, that her resolve to do so is a sincere effort to follow the teachings of Christ, a reflection of how deeply Christian she has become. It is apparent though, when her offer of forgiveness is met in an unexpected way, a way she is unable to cope with (she faints), that her motivation did not come from a place of love and that she hoped to see this man shrunken and weak in response to her charity. She expected that her outwardly Christian behavior would coincide with her un-Christian desire for revenge, and when she doesn’t get that result, she sees that faith, or her imitation of faith, can’t provide her with what she wants.
It is ultimately not the fault of religion that it fails to provide Shin-ae with what she needs, which is grace. Lee, in a way that ought not offend believers, shows that superficial gestures of faith and prayer are not adequate to provide grace, but something deeper is needed. Lee does not attempt to define grace, and, like God, like a “secret sunshine,” he acknowledges grace as something impossible to detect with certainty but still potentially present, and powerful. Has Shin-ae, by the movie’s final sequence found grace? It is impossible to know what’s happening in that scene beyond what’s on the surface—she gives herself a haircut—but we see its possibility and see hope for a future with spiritual strength. There is nothing more that we, nor Shin-ae, can expect.