Secret Sunshine

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At the beginning of 2007’s Secret Sunshine we meet a young mum whose husband has recently died. During the course of the film bad luck strikes again, or as the IMDb coyly (and rightly so) puts it, “another tragic event overturns her life”.

And the woman loses her mind.

What fun, you might think, a woman in a tight corner having more crap dumped on her. And yet. There is a lot to see and digest in Lee Chang-dong’s 2007 drama (which also goes by the name Miryang or even Milyang – a transliteration difference of opinion) and two brilliant performances at the centre of it.

One is by Jeon Do-yeon, as Lee Shin-ae, the young mum in question. Shin-ae has left Seoul after the death of her husband and gone with her young son to his home city, Miryang, much to the bemusement of the locals, who cannot understand why anyone would do that. It’s there, in this unfamiliar place, that this bright and outspoken young woman is visited again by grim fate, and where she becomes unhinged, striking off into the unexplored territories of religion, shoplifting and, eventually, sex, in an attempt to assuage her grief.

The other is by Song Kang-ho, as garage mechanic and full-bore doofus Kim Jong-chan, who likes what he sees when he first catches sight of Shin-ae and sets about trying to win her, in spite of the fact she’s just not interested in him. Shin-ae’s brother even tells Jong-chan not to bother as he just isn’t her type. But Jong-chan is not one to be deterred. Even when tragedy strikes Shin-ae, he is there, quietly on the side, driving her places, defending her in tight situations, being the white knight she never asked for and might not even notice is there.

A grief-stricken Shin-ae is comforted by Jong-chan
Maybe Shin-ae needs Jong-chan more than she thinks

There are two different flows in this movie – the tragic and the comic, Shin-ae and Jong-chan – and that’s the real reason to watch it, because director Lee Chang-dong’s skill is so consummate that he is able to weld the two into a whole without compromising either. In fact they reinforce each other. Shin-ae remains, to the end, a woman who might as well be on fire she is so heartbroken; Jong-chan remains a clod, a chump, a knucklehead, though one with a good heart.

Jeon Do-yeon has been famous in South Korea since her breakthrough in 1997’s The Contact but her most high-profile role in the rest of the world was probably in 2010’s The Housemaid, a grim drama about domestic servitude in which she was eventually required to access the inner gothic banshee. She was outstanding there and is again here, with displays of grief that are genuinely upsetting.

Song Kang-ho is much better known. He’s long been a go-to actor for Bong Joon Ho, going all the way back to Memories of Murder, but most people will know him best for his lead role in 2019’s Parasite, the first foreign language film to win the Oscar for Best Picture.

The rest of the cast are on the money too. The scenes where Shin-ae hangs with her gal pals and they just gossip, eat food, exchange confidences, are beautifully done and as light as air. Same with Jong-chan and his work cronies, who spend most of their time in micro-aggressive attempts at sexual harrasment of the garage’s only female employee. Again, beautifully observed and performed.

It’s an odd-couple drama in some ways, though less schematic, more subtle than most of them, and it witholds its redemption for its two lead characters, who serve as counterpoints to each other right to the end. His man-boy uselessness only intensifying the impact of her desolation; her grief only making him look more silly.

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© Steve Morrissey 2023

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