Starring: Jeon Do-yeon, Song Kang-ho
Director: Lee Chang-dong
Two things stand out in Lee Chang-dong's Secret Sunshine, the South Korean writer-turned-filmmaker's first directorial outing after his two-year spell as a government minister. The most obvious is Jeon Do-yeon's remarkably nuanced performance as a young widow whose life becomes a cycle of misery and confusion, a gritty turn that takes up nearly every frame of the 142-minute film and won her the best actress award at this year's Cannes Film Festival. Hardly as noticeable, but as important, is Lee's decision to shoot the film on handheld camera: the wobbly cinematography amplifies the reality that sparks the heartbreak and fury of Jeon's character, making Secret Sunshine one of this year's most powerful films.
Just like many of South Korean mainstream cinema's ill-fated female characters, Jeon's Shin-ae is made to suffer the most despairing twists life throws. Seen failing to chart a new life in the unsympathetic environment of the 'conservative' Milyang - where she hopes to begin anew after the death of her husband - Shin-ae's misery is increased when her son is killed by kidnappers with an eye to her supposed wealth.
Shin-ae's efforts to overcome the grief lead her to more despair, her belief in divine intervention and social justice shattered as she attempts to reconcile her anguish with religion.
Nearly shorn of music and devoid of fanciful cinematic devices, Secret Sunshine maintains its tension throughout; Shin-ae's comparatively sunny new life in the first half - a mix of her reinvigorated self, and the flaws in her character that will partly lead to her fall - is laid out with a wealth of clues that hint at the explosive denouement to come. And when the fatal twist comes, Shin-ae's botched attempts to recover - and avenge, both her son's murder and the Good Samaritans she sees as messengers of a hypocritical god - are harrowing to watch. Jeon (above) gives her role the multi-dimensional edge needed for a confused individual swinging between emotional extremes, unable to understand the mysterious way destiny works.
As in Lee's previous films, Secret Sunshine attacks the social norms that permeate South Korea today, whether it be traditional masculinity's feeble attempts to address the pain of a neighbour, or the breakdown of human relations in the face of a culture entrenched in capitalism. Lee and his cast have delivered a gem that combines a melodramatic sweep and a genuine understanding of human emotions.
Secret Sunshine opens today