Thursday, May 16, 2013

2013 Cannes Marathon: Secret Sunshine

(Winner of the Best Actress Prize to Jeon Do-yeon at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival)

Based on short story The Story of a Bug by Lee Cheong-jun, Secret Sunshine is the story of a widowed piano teacher who relocates to a small town with her son following the death of her husband as things get worse through troubling circumstances as a woman tries to start over. Written for the screen and directed by Lee Chang-dong, the film is an exploration into grief and faith as a woman struggles with the new challenges she faces in her life. Starring Jeon Do-yeon, Song Kang-ho, and Kim Young-jae. Secret Sunshine is a tremendously harrowing yet mesmerizing film from Lee Chang-dong.

The film is the story about a woman named Lee Shin-ae (Jeon Do-yeon) coping with loss as she decides to start all over with her son by relocating to her late husband’s hometown. With the help of a kind mechanic named Kim Jong-chan (Song Kang-ho), she becomes part of this small city until something tragic would happen as she descends into despair where she would go into a journey to find some idea of salvation. It’s a film that plays into the life of a woman as she is eager to make a new life for herself but things don’t go her way as she would descend into madness where she seeks to find something that can save her. It’s a melodrama that is told with such restraint as it doesn’t just explore loss but also faith as a woman begins to ask questions about the will of God.

Lee Chang-dong’s script takes its time to explore the trials and tribulations of Lee Shin-ae as she is this very gifted piano player who comes to the small city of Milyang that is translated as “secret sunshine” in Chinese. With her son Jun (Seon Jung-yeob), the two are hoping to find a new life in this small town until something happens where Lee faces some of the most devastating moments of her life. The script has a traditional structure where the first act is about Lee’s attempt to start over and her encounter with tragedy while the second act is about Lee’s desire to find salvation with Kim joining her to become a Born-again Christian just to support her. The third act is about Lee’s disillusionment with God and faith as she starts to act out while confronting Kim about his feelings for her as it all comes down to the loss that Lee has endured.

Chang-dong’s direction is very understated in its approach to melodrama as he shoots everything in location in Milyang and some of its nearby locations. The direction is filled with some very simple yet exotic images of the city and some of its places including Christian churches where people are trying to find some salvation. Though Chang-dong is aware that the people who are trying to help Lee have good intentions, they are definitely oblivious to how deep her pain is. Even as the direction does have some elements of style including some scenes where Lee is trying to see if God will talk to her as an act of defiance. Still, Chang-dong is willing to follow Lee in every moment she’s in while giving some time towards Kim who is eager to help her and win her over though it would prove to be complicated as Lee becomes more erratic and in despair. Overall, Chang-dong creates a very chilling yet powerful film about loss and faith.

Cinematographer Cho Yong-kyu does excellent work with the film‘s very colorful yet naturalistic cinematography to play up the world of Milyang as well as some stylish lights for some interior scenes at night. Editor Kim Hyun does terrific work to the editing as it‘s mostly low-key and straightforward with a few jump-cuts to play out some of its drama. Production designer Sihn Jeom-hui does nice work with the set pieces from the piano place and home that Lee lives in to the churches she and Kim attend.

Costume designers Cha Sun-young and Kim Nuri do fine work with the costumes as it‘s mostly casual to play up the personality of the characters. The sound work of Steve R. Seo is superb for the setting it creates in the church scenes as well as the more intimate moments at Lee‘s home. The music of Christian Sasso is quite serene to play up the sense of melancholia with its heavy, string-based score.

The film’s cast is brilliant as it features some notable small roles from Kim Young-jae as Lee’s brother, Cho Young-jim as Jun’s schoolteacher, Song Mi-rim as the schoolteacher’s troubled daughter, and Seon Jung-yeob as Lee’s son Jun. Song Kang-ho is great as the very kind mechanic Kim who falls for Lee as he tries to help her get back on her feet as he does whatever to win her over. Finally, there’s Jeon Do-yeon in an unforgettable performance as Lee Shin-ae where Do-yeon displays a performance that is just entrancing to watch as a woman whose sense of hope to start over becomes lost in grief and despair while descending downward into a state of madness as it’s a truly haunting performance.

Secret Sunshine is an incredible film from Lee Chang-dong that features a magnificent performance from Jeon Do-yeon. It’s a film that explores the world of death and tragedy as well as one woman’s yearning for salvation. It’s also a very mesmerizing film that also explores the fallacy of faith and how it can take someone into the wrong direction. In the end, Secret Sunshine is a phenomenal film from Lee Chang-dong.

Lee Chang-dong films: (Green Fish) - (Peppermint Candy) - (Oasis (2002 film)) - Poetry - Burning (2018 film)

© thevoid99 2013

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