Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Sep 28, 2007 2:07 pm 
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A new life gone terribly wrong

The most interesting thing about Miryang (Secret Sunshine) is the actors. Jeon Do-yeon, as Lee Shin-ae, the main character, is a woman with a young son whose husband has died in a tragic accident, and who leaves Seoul to live in Miryang, which was his home town, with her young son. Jeon’s face is very changeable. She is girlish, flirtatious, elegant, aged and sad, desperate and joyous, with it and terribly isolated by turns, and it’s all in her face. The film also stars Song Kang-ho as Kim, a man who meets her when her car breaks down coming into Miryang, who happens to run a garage in town, and who follows her around all the time thereafter, despite her apparent lack of interest in his attentions. Song is the biggest star in Korea right now, renowned for his work with Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance; Memories of Murder and The Host). And yet here he plays a throwaway character, almost a forgotten man. But of course he makes him interesting and curiously appealing. He is the essential ballast to keep Jeon’s character from floating away.

Lee Shin-ae is a piano teacher. She comes to the new town, which is a neutral place, a kind of poor-man’s Seoul, a town "just like anywhere else," as Kim says (just as he is in a way just like anyone else). Her little boy is sprightly, as little boys are, but plainly damaged and withdrawn at times too. His father used to snore, and when he misses him he lies awake, pretending to snore. He goes to school, and Shin-ae meets parents and students and shopkeepers. There is a sense of place in the film, even though the place is in a sense "anywhere." People speak in the local dialect, and everyone knows everything, and Shin-ae’s Seoul origin is immediately noticed. Is life really harsher here, away from the big city and its sophistication? Shin-ae seems not to realize the danger she is in.

Something terrible happens. And Shin-ae doesn’t necessarily deal with it in the best possible way. But it happens and she must face the consequences. But she can’t. She goes to pieces. A perpetrator is caught, but that’s no consolation. Eventually she becomes so despairing, she relents and goes to a born-again Christian meeting an acquaintance has been pressing her to attend. She finds peace and release with this. But when she decides not only to forgive the perpetrator but to go to the prison to tell him so, that experience is full of ironies and it destroys her all over again. She becomes embittered and desperate and she no longer finds solace in religion. And it gets worse than that.

Jeon Do-yeon gives her all in this extremely demanding and protean role. Lee Chang-dong may be a very good director. If an actor of the stature of Song Kang-ho expresses enormous admiration for him, that is convincing. According to Scott Foundas of LA Weekly, Lee’s first three films, Green Fish (1997), Peppermint Candy (2000) and Oasis (2002) have marked him out as "one of the leading figures of his country’s recent cinematic renaissance." But this is not as successful a film as those of other Korean directors whose work I’ve seen, such as Yong Sang-Soo, Bong Joon-ho, and the prodigiously, almost perversely gifted Park Chan-wook. It may indeed begin as Foundas says as a kind of "Asiatic Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore" and then "abruptly and without warning" turns into "something of a thriller, and some time after that a nearly Bressonian study in human suffering." But that progression not only seems random and indigestible; the film sags and loses its momentum toward the end and then simply fizzles out, with no sense of an ending. There are also weaknesses in the action. Shin-ae takes foolish chances with her son, and makes bad choices all along. If she is destined for madness like Betty in Jean-Jacques Beineix's Betty Blue, which might explain her peculiar and mistaken choices, that isn’t something that is properly developed. This is an interesting film, certainly a disturbing one, but one that leaves one doubtful and dissatisfied, after putting one through an emotional wringer.

An official selection of the New York Film Festival presented at Lincoln Center, 2007—an event that has done right by Korean filmmakers in the recent past. Jeon Do-yeon was honored as Best Actress at Cannes for her mercurial performance in Secret Sunshine.

Note: In New York the Asia Society put on a Lee Chang-dong series running May 5–12, 2008, and including Oasis, Peppermint Candy and Green Fish.

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