[SECRET SUNSHINE screens Friday April 22nd at 6:30 p.m. and Saturday April 23rd at 1:30 p.m. at the Cleveland Museum of Art]
Review by Charles Cassady Jr.
*NOTE - this review contains spoilers. Read at your own risk.*
Given that Hollywood routinely scouts out Asian stuff these days for instant Americanized remakes, I wonder what the young studio intern who had to preview SECRET SUNSHINE put in the official report. "Umm, Cate Blanchett could be in it…Umm, it was weird there weren’t any ghosts this time…Umm, it kinda made my head hurt with thinking and stuff…Umm, got any meth?" The unadorned, plainly dealt narrative that still grabs you by the throat is a spiritual drama – or tragedy - sometimes reminiscent of modern Iranian cinema, despite the shift in geography and culture to South Korea.
Shin-ae is a young widow who, despite what might have been a less-than-ideal marriage, is following through with her late husband's wish to relocate from cosmopolitan Seoul to his hometown, a small city called Miryang, which Lee has never seen, with their little boy Jun. There's early dialogue describing Miryang as a conservative, unfashionable place with a rapidly dwindling population, followed by prolonged wondering what the Chinese translation of the name is. Any audience member at the Cleveland Museum of Art screening who yells out "Korea's Cleveland!" gets instant absolution from me.
Miryang actually translates as "secret sunshine," and absolution (or lack of it) is a turning point in the plot. Shin-ae finds employment in Miryang (okay, maybe it's not Korea's Cleveland after all) as a piano teacher and starts to adjust to the slower change of pace, flirtatious local guys and the strong Christian-evangelical element in the society, this last a bit wearying for agnostic widow. But the novelty of being the new girl in town draws unwanted attention, and Shin-ae is struck by the most appalling crime imaginable [SPOILER ALERT - select text with your mouse to read] as Jun is kidnapped and murdered. The mother falls into deep trauma as the child is duly cremated, the culprit caught and imprisoned. Finally persuaded by her circle of Christian friends and associates to attend a healing service, Shin-ae becomes beatifically Born Again and joins the Miryang church community in household prayer meetings and all-smiles services about Jesus. It seems too good to be true - and we all know well that when filmmakers talk about "higher powers," it's either Alcoholics Anonymous or Bob and Harvey Weinstein.
Sure enough, the heroine’s religious conversion is only eggshell-thin. When Shin-ae loses her faith as rapidly as she gained it and starts to embark on a campaign of bad behavior, we realize that, either by design of filmmaker Lee Chang-dong or by scriptwriting carelessness, we really don’t know much about Shin-ae, her apparent lifelong resentment of God, and what she’s capable of; she might as well go full GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO on her fellow parishioners, for all we know. But the movie ends on a subdued note of tentative healing, qualified within the sad limitations that organized religion tends to have when deal with wrenching agony and deep wounds. Oh, by the way, Art Museum, nice going showing this at Easter time. That old movie version of The Passover Plot must still be over at Richard Dawkins' place (Google "Passover Plot" and "Zalman King" as search terms, you dumb meth-head kids and movie execs whose memories don't go back much before the first AMERICAN PIE). (3 1/2 out of 4 stars).