With a background in the arts and being a well-respected novelist, it's no surprise to see the films of Lee Chang-dong structured in a literary style. It's one which simply sits back and curiously observes its subject matter with minimal interference or judgment by its creator. Lee creates an environment and condition where his characters experience unexpected obstacles, which they alone must overcome and suffer the consequences of their decisions. 'Secret Sunshine' is no different. It's a film on the kind of anguishing grief that can devastate the soul and the search to rid one's self of it. In that respect, the plot also explores the damage faith and religion can cause in a person desperately in need of help.
The elegantly lyrical narrative doesn't seem terribly concerned with the question of God's existence as much as it wonders the purpose and possible harm of religion in a person's life, particularly one suffering a terrible loss. And Lee isn't condescending to the convictions of one's faith or goes out of his way to disrupt the logic of believing in something that can't be physically proven. In fact, he doesn't immediately begin with questions or even raise the heart of the subject matter until we are halfway into the film. Instead, he commences with the small ironies of life and slowly builds towards his larger concerns. Essentially, Lee's theological suspicions arise from the actions of the characters, and only after we've become familiar with them.
Like the prayer meetings mentioned throughout the film, 'Secret Sunshine' is a meditative portrait and study on characters with wounded souls. Do-yeon Jeon is, of course, our main focus of attention as Shin-ae, and she provides a remarkably, heartbreaking performance of a woman robbed of everything she loves. Her spiritual journey consists of a hope to discover meaning in her life but ultimately confronting one crushing tragedy after another. Along the way, she meets others of the provincial town Miryang, which translates ironically to "secret sunshine," from Jong Chan (Kang-ho Song), who follows Shin-ae like a lost puppy, and the "born-again" drug pharmacist to the school teacher and his teen daughter. As the story progresses, we learn they, too, come with internal wounds or some form of inner emptiness.
For the first half of the emotionally poignant drama, audiences are completely in the dark of the plot's direction. Even as Shin-ae losses more than she can humanly bear, we are clueless as to why we are witnessing such severity inflicted upon one character and her move toward religion. Not until we see Shin-ae live literally by the words of Christianity, visiting the person who injured her in order to forgive him (this is 90 minutes into the film), do we realize Lee Chang-dong's main point finally emerge and come to fruition. It's an earth-shattering injustice that's discouragingly lethal, sending Shin-ae into an inescapable downward spiral. Without attacking his viewers, Lee subtly and brilliantly raises the question of believing in a God that would grant something which was not His to give away.
'Secret Sunshine' is a stirring, compassionate human drama that understatedly and quietly raises question on the role of religion, not in society as a whole but in the private life of a person dealing with difficult psychological trauma. We follow Shin-ae as she endures painful loss, then enticed by a religion which promises to heal her suffering and finally, her breakdown once she sees through the illusion. Although he doesn't put forward the plot's meaning as an all-inclusive argument, meaning it may not be true of every believer in the Christian faith, Lee Chang-dong is clearly speculating on whether religion only serves to mask the deep, personal mental struggles of its followers. Is it really more than a band-aid trying to cover up the inner turmoil growing like an infection beneath the façade?
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This Blu-ray edition of 'Secret Sunshine' comes courtesy of The Criterion Collection (spine #576) on a Region A locked, BD50 disc and housed in their standard clear keepcase. Accompanying the disc is a 16-page booklet with stills from the movie and a very good essay entitled "A Cinema of Lucidity" by film critic Dennis Lim. There are no trailers or promos before being taken to the distributor's normal menu options.
According to the booklet accompanying the disc, this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (2.35:1) was struck from the original camera negative and supervised by director Lee Chang-dong and cinematographer Cho Yong-kyu. The results are an immaculate and squeaky-clean picture with marvelous detailed clarity.
The fine lines in hair, clothing and background info are very well-defined while textures in facial complexions appear natural and revealing. The color palette is not especially dramatic or impressive, looking rather subdued and inexpressive, but primaries are rendered accurately. Contrast seems to run a bit hotter than normal with highlights taking away some of the finer distinct details, but it's not too damaging to the overall transfer and levels are consistent from beginning to end. Blacks, meanwhile, are true and right on the money with excellent shadow delineation, providing the image with a strong depth of field.
This is a great video presentation for a very somber and emotional film.
Criterion also provides a DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack taken from digital master files that's quite excellent for such a grave film. The character-driven drama displays an open and spacious soundstage with terrific acoustical details and a very well-balanced channel separation. Background activity moves across the screen fluidly and with ease while the musical score creates an inviting and engaging front soundfield. Even moments of silence exhibit an admirable and moving presence, perfectly exemplifying Shin-ae's loneliness and terrifying emotional state. Conversations are intelligible and precise, and dynamics are stable and cleanly defined throughout. The design doesn't come with much of a low-end or employ the surround speakers, but the lossless mix is true to its source and delivers a strong presentation that's adequate for the film's subject matter.
As always, this Blu-ray edition of 'Secret Sunshine' arrives with the same assortment of bonus material as its DVD counterpart.
'Secret Sunshine' is an emotionally expressive drama exploring grief and the search for consolation, with a remarkably powerful performance by Do-yeon Jeon. From director Lee Chong-dong, the lyrical narrative slowly evolves into a thought-provoking observation on the role of religion in the life of a person suffering mental anguish. The Blu-ray comes with a near-reference picture quality and an excellent audio presentation. Supplements are terribly lacking, but their absence does little to ruin the overall package, which is recommended for fans of cerebral art-house features.