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NYFF: Secret Sunshine

October 6th, 2007 (12:41 pm)

Like a lot of other film organizations, the Film Society of Lincoln Center (which organizes the NYFF) has been aware of the Korean Wave and included several notable films in each year's lineup. 2000 saw Im Kwon-Taek's Chunhyang; 2005 screened Park Chan-wook's Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. Last year's festival had two: Woman on the Beach and a magical midnight showing of The Host. This year there's only one film, but it's the memorable Secret Sunshine (Miryang).

Shin-ae is a recently-widowed woman who relocates herself and her young son Jun from Seoul to Miryang, where her husband was born. At first, she comes down a bit heavily on the locals: she's the big city woman who, although meek-looking, is bringing them culture, giving them advice on how to improve their lives, and demonstrating financial savvy. They're polite enough about all this to her face, but soon enough they're more than talking behind her back.

And maybe that's what brings about an incident that totally devastates her, that demonstrates that maybe it's the locals with the upper hand in this environment. Once again she's forced to reconstruct her life, with less control over it than she originally thought she had.

It's in this reconstruction and rethinking that the movie bears fruit. Is this a story of pride goeth before a fall, or a fragile woman putting up a brave face? Is it cynical, that maybe Shin-ae wasn't as good at life as she thought she was? Or - given hints that her husband wasn't as admirable as she presents him - is she in denial, and creating a narrative that really didn't exist? Or has she just always tailored her life to fit around others' existences? That's the genius of it: all these interpretations are possible and can simultaneously coexist; and, woven together, they carry the story forward as Shin-ae's steps turn out to be missteps and she struggles to find an answer, any answer, to the bleeding wound her life has become.

There are bigger questions here as well. Religion becomes a big part of her life - but is it fake or real? How does such a woman, who ends up falling out with her family (and keep in mind that Korean society in general is somewhat conservative and very family-oriented), survive in a small conservative town? Can her outward independence really work in this environment?

I'm trying my best not to spoil things - that's part of the impact of the movie - but there are two main events that mark Shin-ae's evolution. First, that very painful scenes when her personal resolution to events is ripped away from her, equivalent to the "omigod" scene in Sopyonje when you realize what exactly has been going on. Secondly, when she encounters a second source of pain, but this time she's able to take matters into her own hands and act for herself. There are layers to this movie, and it will take multiple showings to do justice to them all.

Jeon Do-yeon won Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival this year for her portrayal of Shin-ae as she slides through her grief into a kind of madness, but has hope of making out the other side. Song Kang-ho, the slacker-dad star of The Host, is her somewhat unwanted but never deterred suitor, a bit of comic relief who nevertheless doesn't allow her to become completely lost. Both A-list actors, and both very capable of bridging any cultural divides that may come up.

Secret Sunshine has already been chosen as South Korea's 2008 submission for the Foreign Film Oscars. I doubt the Academy will take much notice - they are a conservative bunch, and there are always films they ignore (even disregarding the films that didn't get nominations last year, The Lives of Others is the kind of very safe choice that the Academy makes year after year). But this should not keep the average film fan from going out and seeing what's really happening in the world.