Leave it to Nietzsche to define “faith” as the “the will to avoid knowing what is true.” There is a scene in Lee Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine wherein the protagonist replaces a religious congregation’s church music with a song that goes, “lies, lies, lies.” The gathering, hearing the supposed blasphemy blocking their train of thought, ignores the song by succumbing to a deeper state of religious obliviousness. There is also a character, portrayed by the great Song Kang-ho, who forces himself to join the church so as to get closer to the main character. Instances such as these demonstrate the film’s willingness to slap us in the face, and it does not stop until its highly interesting final shot, which, for the unenlightened ones, would most likely generate raised eyebrows.
The film’s title is debatable, yet most will equate sunshine with Shin-ae’s desire to elevate herself from the state she finds herself in. The film, after all, begins with the shot of the sky, a shot which is constantly repeated for the sake of emphasis. Director Chang-dong has a knack of portraying the deterioration of an individual as seen in Peppermint Candy and, more recently, in Poetry. Secret Sunshine is not any different. It tells the story of single mother Shin-ae as she moves to humble village Miryang, the hometown of her late husband. It takes a while before her son is murdered, and soon Shin-ae must learn how to cope with the loss by joining a religious congregation. Before her conversion, the women of Miryang ignored and ostracized her. It is only in becoming part of their church when they welcome Shin-ae with open arms. The film associates an individual’s identity with his or her role in society—more specifically, in religion. It does so unflinchingly, and it does not stop until Shin-ae, in the end, finally finds her secret sunshine.
Much has been said about Jeon Do-yeon’s performance, which earned her a Best Actress award in Cannes. The feat is undisputed. Although the story may take a bit long to move forward at the beginning, Do-yeon’s presence is more than enough for us to forgive this little flaw. One memorable scene shows her character visiting her son’s murderer in prison. Her restrained expression all throughout already speaks a thousand words. Do-yeon fearlessly juggles subtlety and frenzies. It is clear that the director is aware of the actress’s prowess, and at times, he probably feared of her being too good, as there were a couple of instances wherein we only see Shin-ae’s back whenever she succumbs to hysteria. We only hear her pained cries, and that is enough for us to imagine what her character is going through.
Praising Secret Sunshine is praising its boldness. The film slaps us in the face with an attempted validation of the fact that religion is for the weak. It finds itself in a world where people would do anything to find place in society. When it comes to dealing with the film’s subject matter, one must find himself in a state of open-mindedness. Films about religion pique the curiosity of each and every one of us, and if portrayed wrongly or, in most cases, done excessively, would surely turn out to be highly controversial. This is exactly the type that dispute-mongers would be more than willing to lambast, but with the way the film handles such matter through story and acting, there is little to worry about.