Shin-ae moves to the small town Milyang with her son Jun. Shin-ae has no real connection to Milyang, but it's the home town of her late husband. And she quickly seems to belong here, until one night when she's out having a drink and returns home to notice that her son is missing. This is a tragedy that finally throws her over the edge.
"Secret Sunshine" was a Criterion title that I've been interested in for a while, and finally during the latest Barnes & Noble Criterion sale I decided to get it. As usual, the movies I seem to be the most interested in are those that I don't read up on at all. I knew this was gonna be a very sad drama, and that's all there is to it. It was clearly enough for me, and once again my gut was right (I say "again" but a lot of the times it's not).
This is a film I don't want to spoil so I am trying my best to give a good review without mentioning too much. It's hard to define how far you can go with a review of a movie like this, so bare with me!
We're thrown into Shin-ae's life in the middle of moving to the small town Milyang with her son Jun. Milyang is the home town of Shin-ae's dead husband, and she thinks it's a good idea to continue their life there. To begin with it is - it's great, actually. The town is small, the people are nice, Shin-ae can continue teaching piano and her kid goes to school. Against all odds, they seem to be very happy. And right about now is when the second tragedy of her life strikes, which is the death of her son. In attempts to get through this even bigger blow to her heart, she's sent through a number of emotions and quite literally can't take it. She suffers from several panic attacks and breakdowns, and ultimately finds solace in Christianity.
Although I hadn't read a single word about the plot before-hand, it's very easy to guess some of the large turns early on. And some of them don't make sense (or rather, they are left in the dark) such as some details on Jun's disappearance. We know what happens, but not why or how. This wasn't an issue with me until after I had finished the movie. While watching it I was so into it that it didn't matter. And perhaps it doesn't. Sometimes I find it fascinating with flaws such as these, as they can occur in life too. If you're following a certain person's story, it's not required for details about what goes on elsewhere to be brought up. Perhaps I'm being too nice on it because I liked the movie, who knows?
Shin-ae's many breakdowns after the death of her son offers some of the saddest scenes in recent memory. We have to thank Do-yeon Jeon's performance for that. She really crawls into Shin-ae and cries and screams as if it was her own real tragedy. Which is what an actor should do, but most actors can't get this into a role. And proof of that is something I saw in the behind-the-scenes that followed. Before shooting a certain scene, Do-yeon Jeon couldn't relate to what Shin-ae was doing. She simply didn't get it. And because of this they postponed that scene until she had gotten more time to think about it. I think that's just fantastic, and that kind of care for the role is very noticable in the movie. Her character is a total wreck, and at times even psychotic, but we understand it - and accept it. If Shin-ae had been the alone in the venture, without her friend Jong Chan, it would've been too hard to watch this movie. It would've been that sad!
Which brings me to Jong Chan, and what that character gives us. Well, first of all he's played by Kang-ho Song. Kang-ho Song played the amazingly likable goofball in "The Host", and the absurd Weird in "The Good, The Bad and the Weird". I was happy to see his face in this, but it made me wonder how it would affect the movie. Because his presence would definitely affect it, that much I knew. And turns out it did. Jong Chan is the VERY nice and likable supporting role, and watching him is just... nice. It's a huge break from watching the devastation that the Shin-ae character mirrors, and although I might've been more fascinated if the movie was THAT dark, I think Jong Chan fits. Otherwise there would be no hope!
A huge theme in this movie is faith and how it goes together with grief. A lot of people find God after a trauma, and Shin-ae does as well. And it serves her good. It lifts a lot of weight from her shoulders, and she can get through with her life again. But when things are looking the brightest and she's truly ready to go on, there's another bump in her road that makes her question religion yet again. And God literally throws her into another breakdown. She never stops believing, she always feel he's up there, but she can't trust him in the same way again. There has been discussions where people claim the movie goes against Christianity and seems to have provoked a few, but I think what happens in the movie is quite realistic and natural to life. Whether God exists or not. Certainly I'm not religious so I don't mind if films flicks the finger, but in this one I can't see it. For a while I thought maybe it was going to, but then it went back a notch. So no, I don't see this as being anti-Christianity.
What can I say more? "Secret Sunshine" is a very sad movie. It's not so sad that it will crush you, and we have Kang-ho Song as Jong Chan to thank for that. But the portrayal of Shin-ae might be one of the most harrowing that I have seen in a few years. Do-yeon Jeon's simply fantastic, and that alone should be a reason to watch the movie. And don't worry, 142 min doesn't seem as long when you're really into a movie. Even a movie where not too much happens, except for a woman's grief driving her crazy. It's not all that it could have been, but I liked it a lot.