Far be it for me to question the method to local distributors’ madness, but how is it that a film as potent as Chang-dong Lee’s Secret Sunshine. It was purely by accident that I discovered this award-winning title had finally received a much-belated (and much-deserved, it turned out) local DVD release, as I perused the new release wall of my local rental store. Given the DVD isn’t even an Australian one, but a foreign import, I can’t even celebrate a genuine local release, but well done to that intuitive DVD store manager. First premiering in 2007, that it’s released five years later is quite frustrating, especially given the emergence of the South Korean film industry as a major player on the world scene. Still, we have it here now and despite its hard-going ways, it really is a quietly devastating piece of cinema.
In the role that won her the Best Actress prize at the Cannes Film Festival, Do-yeon Jeon stars as Shin-ae, a widow who moves from Seoul to her husband’s hometown of Miryang (“secret sunshine”) to build a new life with her young son (Jung-yeop Seon). To say that’s just the beginning is putting it mildly, as Shin-ae’s life descends deeper into tragedy. Director Chang-dong, incidentally the South Korean Minister of Culture in the early 2000s – what have our Politicians done for us lately? – is wise to an audience’s grief threshold and doesn’t wallow in Shin-ae’s miserabilism, instead turning his 144-minute drama into an examination of the hypocrisy of religion and the worship of false idols. It never ceases to be a beautiful work of art, but like, say, John Cameron Mitchell’s Rabbit Hole with Nicole Kidman, Secret Sunshine isn’t the arduous viewing experience that one might think with so much tragedy and dire happenings.
It quickly dawns as to why Jeon won so many awards for this performance – much like the leading lady of Chang-dong’s follow-up, Poetry, which also hasn’t received a local release. His screenplay, based on a novel by Chong-jun Yi, is tailor made for an actor of such devoted madness. Jeon’s performance could very easily be described as fearless as she peers behind the walls put up by a devastated woman. It’s a heartbreaking performance, watching as she discovers solace only to lose that once again by the hand of a man who has caused her life such misery. One scene in particular, that opposite a prisoner, is an extraordinary feat of acting by itself.
I can’t begin to contemplate why this wonderful movie has gone so long without a release here. Even in America, it didn’t receive a release until last year. I am well aware that many films that win critical praise and awards on the international film festival circuit can’t all find homes as devoted as many of this country’s distributors, but Secret Sunshine is such a beautifully made film that I’m truly flabbergasted that nobody picked it up before now. Another Korean mother drama, Mother by Joon-ho Bong, was released to much acclaim in 2010 (it even made my top ten of the year) and the audience for films of this region only seems to grow and grow every year. If you’re able to find yourself looking at a copy of Secret Sunshine on the shelf of your local DVD library then don’t wait any longer than you’ve been forced to.
But, hey, at least we got to see Le Chef!