Abstract and Keywords
This chapter analyzes Lee Chang-dong's film Secret Sunshine (Miryang, 2007), about a woman, Shin-ae, who moves with her small son to her late husband's hometown, Miryang, for a new start. The film contains no dramatic action sequences, visual trickery, or dramatic editing techniques. Instead, Lee offers a meditative and gentle approach to what is, in essence, a violent story. The people involved are ordinary members of society; Shin-ae is a young piano teacher and Jong-chang is a mechanic. They are unexceptional people who are caught up in a tragically exceptional situation; the kidnapping and murder of Shin-ae's child. Secret Sunshine also contains many of the developments that have marked modern-day South Korea, including the presence of Christianity as a key part of the modern nation. The film questions the motivations of certain individuals related to the Church and how there is no such thing as a quick and easy solution to emotional turmoil.
International Film Awards
2007 Nominated Best Film, Cannes Film Festival
2007 Best Actress: Jeon Do-yeon, Cannes Film Festival
2007 Best Picture, Asian Film Awards
2007 Best Director, Asian Film Awards
2007 Best Actress: Jeon Do-yeon, Asian Film Awards
Shin-ae moves with her small son to her deceased husband’s hometown, Miryang, for a new start. On the way to the town her car breaks down and mechanic Jong-chang comes to her aid. Jong-chang falls in love with Shin-ae and although she makes it clear she does not have romantic feelings for him he continues to try to get close to her. Gossip with regards to her situation abounds in the small town; especially about how much money she has. Shin-ae encourages these rumours and even tells people she is thinking of buying land and building a house. One day her son is kidnapped and a ransom demand is made but Shin-ae does not have enough money. She hands over all the money she has but the boy is later found dead in a river. The murderer is caught and is revealed to be the local school teacher who had kidnapped the boy to try and gain enough money to escape his monotonous and unhappy life with his teenage daughter. Shin-ae is devastated by the loss of her son and, watched by the ever-loyal and loving Jong-chang, she spirals into depression. Her depressive state leads her to join the local evangelical Christian Church. Shin-ae fervently embraces God and Christianity as means of emotional escape. She is convinced by the Church to go to the prison and forgive her son’s murderer and despite Jong-chang’s pleadings, she agrees. The experience is a traumatic one for Shin-ae and she turns against the Church in a series of disruptive acts, such as replacing prayer music with an angry pop song and the seduction of a married Church member. She eventually tries to kill herself and is committed to the local mental hospital. When she is released Jong-chang takes her to a hair salon where she meets the daughter of her son’s murderer. She discovers that the girl had been sent to a government reformatory. Unable to face the girl further, Shin-ae runs away with an incomplete haircut. She returns home where she is eventually joined by Jong-chang who helps her to complete the haircut. The film ends with images of her shorn hair blowing in the wind.
(p.93) Secret Sunshine is Lee Chang-dong’s fourth film and this touching tale of a young woman facing tragedy saw Lee gain even more recognition as one of the key directors to have emerged from South Korea in the last two decades. Lee’s role as a government minister made him a well-known figure in South Korean politics but the nomination for Best Film at Cannes helped enhance his reputation as a South Korean director that could succeed on the international stage as well as charm local audiences. Secret Sunshine charts the emotional results when a kidnapping goes wrong. Unlike in Park Chan-wook’s Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (2002), there is no dramatic resolution to the trauma; instead we are shown how a bereaved mother is forced to deal with her son’s tragic death.
Secret Sunshine contains no dramatic action sequences, visual trickery or dramatic editing techniques. Lee’s film offers a meditative and gentle approach to what is, in essence, a violent story. The people involved are ordinary members of society; Shin-ae is a young piano teacher and Jong-chang is a mechanic. They are unexceptional people who are caught up in a tragically exceptional situation; the kidnapping and murder of a child.
Like Peppermint Candy there is a cyclical nature to the film as we see a similar point returned to again and again. Each time, however, there is a difference, a slight change. The opening shot of the film offers the audience a view of a beautiful blue sky through the front windscreen of a parked car, and this shot is returned to later in the film to powerful effect. The first time we see this shot the camera turns to show the tired face of Jun, the small son of recently widowed Shin-ae. Jun sits listening to his mother as she yells to a mechanic down the phone from the side of the road where they have broken down. It is clear that Shin-ae loves her son as she plays with him by the roadside but we are quickly alerted to the fact that Jun’s father is not around and they are retuning to the father’s hometown under sad circumstances. The mechanic that comes to collect them is a familiar face to recent Korean cinema: Song Kang-ho (Shiri, Green Fish and JSA). Song plays Jong-chang as a self-confessed ‘good Samaritan’ who shows absolute and unreciprocated devotion to Shin-ae and remains a pivotal character in the film. Shin-ae settles into the town as a piano teacher and faces down the curiosity of those that surround her.
The film takes a dramatic turn when her son is kidnapped for money that she does not have and then is found dead by the local river. The murderer turns out to be the local school teacher. As mentioned, the film opens with Jun looking at the sky through the car window. When Shin-ae is called to identify the body (p.94) the same shot is repeated; however, this time when the camera turns around, it is Shin-ae, not her small son who is staring at the sky. The question arises: why the repeated shot at two very different times in the film? For Lee, the view of the world from the eyes of the vulnerable is a key feature in his work (in particular, in Oasis and Poetry). As a small boy entering a new town having just lost his father, Jun is in the highly vulnerable position of a child whose life is changing beyond his control. The repetition of the shot enhances the vulnerability of Shin-ae. The shot aligning her with her child not only emphasises their link but the intense vulnerability and terror which she is feeling in the face of having to identify her son’s body. The actions of the police further enhance her as a minority female subject in the face of the male majority of the police investigators. Rather than showing her any real concern the police point her to the body with the words, ‘he’s over there – will you be alright?’ The men stand back and let her approach the body with the camera maintaining a distance from the tableau. They are unable to respond to her grief with any sort of empathy or help. Although the murderer is caught very quickly there is no sense of satisfaction in the solving of the crime. As in Poetry and the suicide of the abused girl, the death of the child is nothing more than a simple tragedy without any real meaning. The identification of her son’s killer only grants Shin-ae more pain as she discovers reasons for the mistake. She had only made the comment about buying land to stop people prying into her private life. This means that her casual actions and another’s misunderstanding of them resulted in her son’s pointless death.
This inability of people to effectively communicate is portrayed constantly throughout the film. When Shin-ae first moves into town she tells a local shop owner that she should redecorate her business to make it more appealing to customers. Her intentions are good but she naturally ends up insulting the shop owner. Shin-ae’s attempts at friendly communication misfire and she gives the impression of rudeness and arrogance. When her son is kidnapped Shin-ae runs to the garage where Jong-chang works and watches him dance around to music. Shin-ae is in clear need of human contact and yet she cannot manage to cross the threshold of the doorway and make her presence felt. In this way words are seen as a method of miscommunication rather than effective communication. Jong-chang is frequently clumsy and awkward in his interaction with Shin-ae and she finds it impossible to convey her real feelings about the death of her husband and then her son. The need for communication and the desire to convey her pain at her loss is what leads Shin-ae to her brief but disastrous alignment (p.95) with charismatic Christianity. When she first arrives at the town she is dismissive of the attempt by the local chemists to convert her to their belief system but after the death of her son Shin-ae makes the decision to attend church and quickly becomes a passionate convert.
The presence of charismatic Christianity in the film references a key development that has taken place in South Korea over the last few decades. Pentecostal and Evangelical Christianity in South Korea has experienced a huge rise in popularity (see Kim 2000) and has raised several issues in South Korean society about its role and purpose, as the unfortunate incident of the church group kidnapped in Afghanistan demonstrates.1 The Church in Secret Sunshine is presented in a very ambivalent light. Shin-ae is suffering and the Church uses her pain as a method to convert her. The chemist tells her that the Church will take away her distress and provide her with comfort, yet this seems almost cruel given the trauma that Shin-ae has undergone. The appeal that Christianity holds for Shin-ae is seen in her first visit to church. Under Jong-chang’s concerned gaze Shin-ae howls and sobs her heart out to an accompaniment of hymns. What the church space seems to do is to allow her to express the pain that she had not been able to voice on the outside. At her son’s funeral her mother-in-law had accused her of being ‘hard’ since Shin-ae had refused to cry but in the space of the Christian church she finds a brief emotional release. This event is misunderstood by Shin-ae as the mark of the Church’s ability to aid her in her grief rather than seeing her experience as part of the normal pattern of coming to term with loss. This is quickly pounced upon by the Church elders and they continue to encourage her fanatical devotion to God as it represents their desire to convert people to their system of belief. In prayer groups Shin-ae is shown as a success story about the power of God to heal and yet we are aware that in her home environment, away from the eyes of others, Shin-ae is clearly unable to come to turns with her son’s death. Her relationship with the Church, except for the first demonstration of release, is actually constraining her natural desire to grieve. Since she is ‘in Gods hands’ and part of His wider plan, she is told she must accept her son’s death and the Church encourages her to go and forgive her son’s murderer.
It is a trip to the prison that causes Shin-se to realise the false sense of comfort that the Church is offering her. When she goes to forgive her son’s murderer she discovers that he has already converted to Christianity and achieved a sense of peace and reconciliation with the crime he had committed. He tells Shin-ae that he is happy she has embraced God and that he is aware that God forgives (p.96) all sins. For Shin-ae the notion that the man believes that he has already being forgiven for his actions before she, the child’s mother, has forgiven him, hits her newfound faith hard. She turns against the Church through a series of telling and considered acts. She breaks into an outdoor prayer meeting and replaces the church music with an angry pop song that informs the churchgoers that everything said is ‘lies, lies, lies’. For Shin-ae the Church represents a hypocrisy which has contributed to the magnification of her pain. She tries to highlight this hypocrisy even more by seducing the chemist’s husband. Although he is initially a willing participant, before he commits himself fully to the act of sex he panics and exhorts her to pray with him for forgiveness. Shin-ae, however, has rejected the notion of forgiveness or hope for the future. She is on a self-destructive path that ends in her trying to commit suicide. Her inability to find a suitable and effective method of communication to articulate her grief, and a supportive and appropriate outlet for her emotional distress, has resulted in Shin-ae utilising the last method she has left to enact her grief: her own body.
Shin-ae’s suicide attempt results in her being placed in a secure mental unit and we see her friends and family withdrawn from her in embarrassment over her distressed and very public mental breakdown. The social state is unable and unwilling to cope with Shin-as as a living embodiment of the tensions and negativity that is clearly present through wider social structures, and as a result she is ostracised and removed from the public sphere. Only the loving and loyal Jong-chang remains, and it is he that collects her from the hospital on her release. From here Jong-chang takes her to the hairdresser where she meets the daughter of her son’s murderer. We learn that she was placed in a reformatory after her father’s incarceration. The crime committed by her father had many victims, not just Shin-ae’s son; however, the notion of divine forgiveness has been rejected and Shin-ae still cannot face or forgive the daughter of the man that murdered her son, and she runs away from the hairdresser with an incomplete haircut. Lee rejects an overly sentimental ending which would see her reconciled with the past by forgiving and embracing the daughter of the man that murdered her son and becoming romantically involved with the loyal Jong-chang. Instead Lee demonstrates the complexity of human emotion by showing that there will never be a complete conclusion to Shin-ae’s grief. Her feelings will change and be less painful, but they will never be eradicated. Her personal tragedy will mark her and those around her for the foreseeable future. There is, however, a sense of hope that is maintained throughout the film. Although the legacy of the (p.97) tragedy will not leave, there is still a chance that Shin-se will gradually manage to put her life back together. It will never be the same as it is impossible to return to the past, but what is offered is the notion that there is still a future in some form. As Jong-chang cuts Shim-ae’s hair the camera pans to her shorn hair blowing in the wind. Rather than looking towards the sky as the film and Shin-ae had previously done for answers to questions that cannot in fact be answered, the film now focuses on the ground and the literal steps that Shin-ae will have to take to begin her life anew despite the tragedy. The new haircut and the subtle change in Shin-ae that allows her to let Jong-chang help her without protest opens the option of a new future. As with all Lee’s films there will not be a happy and easy ending. The hair blowing in the wind does not provide the audience with the complete answer; it only points to a myriad of possibilities.
Secret Sunshine contains many of the developments that have marked modern-day South Korea. The presence of Christianity is a key part of the modern nation. Lee’s film questions the role that this institution plays in wider society. His film is not, however, anti-Christian; although the Church does not succeed in offering permanent comfort to Shin-ae, Jong-chang continues to go and enjoy services even after Shin-ae has left the Church. What Secret Sunshine offers is a questioning of the motivations of certain individuals related to the Church and how there is no such thing as a quick and easy solution to emotional turmoil. Yet the Pastor, the chemist and his wife are all seen as hoping to define their own purity and love of God via their conversion of Shin-ae; they are not genuinely interested in helping her, as their reaction to her sudden dismissal of the Church illustrates. Rather than attempting to understand her distress and grief they berate her for her lack of faith. The Church is seen as part of a wider social problem based on a lack of empathy for others. Most people are seen as so embroiled in the narratives of financial, social and personal desires that they are unable to fully relate to those around them.
Economics evidently plays an important role as it is financial crisis which leads to the kidnapping. The small town is marked by a process of infrastructure building which is taking place across South Korea. When Shin-ae goes to view a plot of land we see a large motorway development in the distance, and Shin-ae is perceived by the kidnapper as the personification of a rich Seoulite who has moved to the countryside. We learn that this is a false impression but it speaks to the notion of social aspiration which marks the small community. Surrounded by economic development and change, the schoolteacher seems (p.98) to fear being left behind and resorts to drastic methods to try and achieve the economic dream. Shin-ae is a piano instructor and this role speaks to the new social aspiration that marks South Korean society as she teaches music to a series of middle-class children.
The presentation of a recognisable landscape of South Korean development gives Secret Sunshine a powerful sense of realism. The film does not offer trite explanations or conclusions, and the lack of melodrama makes the events of the film even more poignant as we become aware that these are ordinary flawed human beings having to face a tragic occurrence and trying to overcome it. Secret Sunshine rejects over-sentimentality in favour of a narrative that presents real emotional depth. We believe and care about the characters and it is this sense of the ‘real’ which perhaps explains the success of the film around the world.
(1) South Korea sends more missionaries abroad than any other nation and in 2007 eighteen missionaries were kidnapped by the Taliban and accused of illegally preaching Christianity. After the execution of two members, the rest were eventually released when Seoul promised to withdraw troops from the region (something which was later reneged upon resulting in more attacks again South Korean military bases in the country).