Criterion has scored another winner with the acquisition of the intense Korean drama "Secret Sunshine." Director Lee Chang-dong has assembled a multi-layered film propelled by a stunning lead performance by Cannes Best Actress Jeon Do-yeon. In an age where few films explore religion from a contemporary standpoint, this is a critical and thoughtful examination of faith, tragedy, grief, forgiveness and perseverance. What starts as a rather pleasant and joyful film morphs into a thriller before it changes tone once again to searing human drama. The director shows a deft hand transforming lightness into the heart of darkness and delivering the viewer to the other side. Complex, challenging, and emotionally devastating--I hope the Criterion release will raise awareness of this remarkably adult entertainment.
A young widow (Do-yeon) and her son relocate to her late husband's hometown Miryang (Secret Sunshine). Starting fresh, she starts to tutor piano and is assisted by a potential new suitor. The details of her new world are expertly showcased and there is a realistic flavor to the scenes of every day life in this small town. But just as she has settled into a daily routine, tragedy strikes. After an intense sequence of events, she is left devastated and bereft. I know many people will reveal more of the plot than I will, but I think it's best to let the narrative unravel without expectation. Seeking solace, she throws herself into spirituality and uses the church to fill the emptiness of her life. The need to forgive and the need to hate do battle within her soul and the last hour of the picture is a war of emotion. Is there a way to reconcile these divergent feelings and is the church a help or a hindrance? This is a serious examination of important issues and a heartfelt and in-depth exploration of character. It doesn't shy away from a woman descending to the very edges of madness as it commingles with morality.
In less subtle hands, "Secret Sunshine" might have turned into a weepy melodrama. With emotions this raw, it would be easy to overplay many aspects of the film--from grief to fervor. But Do-yeon is a revelation, a natural and grounded presence that connects the film to a realness that is remarkable and refreshing. Seriously, this is work that will blow you away! The film doesn't offer tidy answers and is as messy as life itself. So many horrific things may happen to us, and in some way--we all do what we must to persevere. The character in "Secret Sunshine" deals with more than her share of adversity. Each step she has made a conscious decision to move forward. Eventually we all reach our breaking point--whether or not we break is the question. This is a simple and powerful character study that may get under your skin. It did mine! KGHarris, 6/11.
New digital transfer, supervised and approved by director Lee Chang-dong and cinematographer Cho Yong-kyu (with DTS-HD Master Audio on the Blu-ray edition)
New interview with Lee
On the Set of "Secret Sunshine," a video piece featuring interviews with actors Jeon Do-yeon and Song Kang-ho, as well as behind-the-scenes footage
U.S. theatrical trailer
New and improved English subtitle translation
PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by film critic Dennis Lim