Miryang (Secret Sunshine, 2007) begins with the sky. Shine-ae (Jeon Do-yeon)’s car has broken-down outside of Miryang (which literally translates, supposedly, as “secret sunshine”), the place where her recently deceased husband was born and raised. Attempting to restart her life, she has somewhat surprisingly decided to move to the town with her son. This marks the first, faltering step towards confronting the past in a film centring on grief, mourning, faith and survival. The image of the sky is from the point-of-view of Jun, Shin-ae’s son, who gazes through the windscreen of the car. The wide-open space of the countryside is contrasted with the more circumspect and distanced view glimpsed out of the car window. It is this sense of proximity and distance, the subjective and the objective, belonging and separation, exterior and interior that will profoundly characterise the rest of the film. It will return to this image of the sky several more times, with ever more complex associations and questioning motivations, initiating an almost literary pattern of repetition and variation.

Secret Sunshine is a film of subtle rhythms and an almost novelistic attention to experiential detail. The recurring motif of the sky is part of a much larger field of repeated and varied actions, images and sounds that mark the diurnal rhythms of the film. The film is also something of an odyssey, subtly dramatising the developing journey of Shin-ae as she attempts to come to terms with the subsequent abduction and murder of her son, and tries to find ways to absorb, externalise and defer her grief. Although it may seem to rely upon a rather conventional notion of the malevolence and subterranean stirrings beneath small-town life, the film actually provides a far more nuanced and open vision of character and community. This is even true of the film’s more overt critique of Christianity, its growing prevalence in contemporary South Korean society, and the comfort it supposedly offers to those who embrace it. Although Shin-ae’s journey into faith and out again ultimately rails against the undiscriminating forgiveness of god, the film does not fall back on easy stereotypes of the vacuously happy Christian or of a rigid fundamentalism. Shin-ae’s failure to ingratiate herself to others is contrasted with the figure of Jong (the wonderful Song Kang-ho), a mechanic who becomes infatuated with Shin-ae. Equal parts stalker, loyal pet, gormless friend and prospective partner, Jong’s relation to the world is gentler, more child-like, unquestioning and acquiescent. He unthinkingly attends church as a means to support and court Shin-ae, but continues to attend after she has rejected the respite of faith, calmly embracing the sense of order and peace it grants him. He is a figure of much smaller goals and simpler appetites who helps ground Shin-ae’s traumatic experience.

Secret Sunshine is the fourth film made by Lee Chang-dong, inarguably one of the most significant directors to emerge in world cinema over the last 20 years. It forms the middle part of a kind of triptych – also including Oasis (2002) and Shi (Poetry, 2010) – dealing with the extremes of female experience, and features one of the great contemporary performances in its lead role. Lee has commented that he wanted to strip everything back in this film so that we would be forced to focus on the raw experience of the central character and her attempts to deal with her son’s death. Jeon’s performance as Shin-ae is truly remarkable in its range, subtlety and sense of both closeness and distance. Her actions, reactions, emotions and motivations are both understandable and mysterious.

But Lee’s film is preoccupied by what we might call process. Although the 142-minute running-time might seem forbidding for a film that is often staged on a such an intimate scale – though with “epic” implications – it is completely necessary in order to fully explore and present the various stages of Shin-ae’s grief and her process of mourning. Her journey does involve moments of self-pity, masochism and abandonment, as well as a brief, almost incongruous retreat into meaningless carnality, but is dominated by the physical and uncanny experience of separation and her escape into religious ritual, community and faith. But Lee’s film insists upon the necessity and centrality of personal morality and experience, the painfully humanistic values of the self that transcend the transplanted, generalised beliefs of religion. In some ways the journey he plots out for Shin-ae is cruel. She seems to find some peace and even grace in Christianity, giving herself up to the abstract wisdom and unknowable motivations of god. But her faith and belief unravels when she decides to forgive her son’s murderer. The subsequent scene where she visits him in jail is one of the film’s most extraordinary, suggesting the ultimate singularity of the individual and the cosmic indifference of any supreme, moral being or arbiter.

This moment is strangely reminiscent of that in Akira Kurosawa’s Tengoku to jigoku (High and Low, 1963) where business tycoon Kingo Gondo (Toshiro Mifune) visits the incarcerated criminal who kidnapped and ransomed his chauffeur’s son. Expecting a degree of remorse and even begrudging compassion, Gondo is confronted by the unchastened, still-raging kidnapper who offers no moral comfort or certainty. Civilisation, humanism and morality are a thin veneer that pave over an indifferent and brutal world. The comparative scenes in Secret Sunshine are, on the surface, a study in contrast. The forgiveness that Shin-ae offers is doubled by the faith and “inner peace” her son’s murderer has found in prison; god has supposedly absolved his guilt. The simplistic and perennially optimistic Jong initially thinks that the meeting has gone well, the beatific smile of the inmate an easy marker of his shared and redeeming Christian faith. But Shin-ae is crushed by god’s indifference to her pain and agency. At a group meeting later in her home she denies god’s right to forgive this man before she has, questioning: “How could God do that to me?”

Lee has claimed the influence of filmmakers such as John Cassavetes and Robert Bresson upon his work. It is in such moments containing the emotional expressivity of the former and the spiritual questioning of the latter that one can note such influences. But “grace” is not the ultimate, even if unwanted or seemingly unwarranted, state or goal of Lee’s characters. It is the earth and not the heavens that offer consolation here.

In keeping with the equivocal view of community, religion and morality it presents, Lee’s film concludes with a series of images and actions that are disarmingly calming, unsettling and symbolically apt. After ineffectively attempting to commit suicide in a final act of abasement, Shin-ae is discharged from hospital and taken home by the ever-faithful Jong. On the drive home she decides to visit the hairdresser. The initial, if superficial hope of change and cleansing offered by this routine action is undermined by the fact that her young hairdresser turns out to be the daughter of her son’s murderer, herself recently released from juvenile detention. Berating the unknowing Jong for his choice of venue, she leaves the salon, visually questioning, by her gaze skyward, the overriding cruelty of an ironic “god”. On the journey home she walks past the clothes shop of a woman – someone she has gradually struck up a friendship with – to whom she had given unwanted decorating advice earlier in the film. A brief exchange indicates that this woman has actually taken her advice – after initially complaining about her meddlesome, unwanted criticism – and the liberating laughter of their initially uncomfortable conversation provides an earthy brake on Shin-ae’s admittedly understandable self-pity.

Secret Sunshine ends with the ground. The film’s final moments show Shin-ae cutting her own hair in the backyard she once played in with her son, the place where they enacted a game of separation and loss that became all too real. These beautifully modulated actions and compositions suggest the gradual possibility of acceptance and dealing with grief, the presence of Jong holding the mirror – which contains a small inset photograph of her son – intimating the fragile bonds of friendship and support that Shin-ae has resisted and railed against throughout. In keeping with the rest of Lee’s hard-won film, these final moments never really suggest victory or catharsis, just the possibility of survival and the first stages of renewal. The final, conventionally ugly shot of the wet ground as Shin-ae’s hair blows towards it intimates the troubling matter-of-factness of daily experience and is reminiscent of the sunken quarry in which her son’s body was found. As so often in Secret Sunshine, it is an image of both the now and then, the grounded necessity of the present and the trauma of the past, an irresolvable and bottomless image.

Miryang/Secret Sunshine (2007 South Korea 142 mins)

Prod Co: CJ Entertainment/Cinema Service/Pine House Film Prod: Lee Hanna Dir: Lee Chang-dong Scr: Lee Chang-dong, based on the novel by Yi Chong-jun Phot: Cho Yong-kyou Ed: Kim Hyun Prod Des: Shin Jum-hee Mus: Christian Basso

Cast: Jeon Do-yeon, Song Kang-ho, Jo Yeong-jin, Kim Mi-kyung, Kim Yeong-jae, Ko Seo-hie

About The Author

Adrian Danks is Director of Higher Degree Research in the School of Media and Communication, RMIT University. He is also co-curator of the Melbourne Cinémathèque and was an editor of Senses of Cinema from 2000 to 2014. He has published hundreds of articles on various aspects of cinema and is the editor of A Companion to Robert Altman (Wiley-Blackwell, 2015).