Secret Sunshine puts a heavy burden on its lead actress, Jeon Do-yeon, but she’s thankfully able to bear it. The amount of tragedy delivered by this story – from writer-director Lee Chang-dong – would feel abusive if a lesser talent was at its center.
Jeon plays Lee Shin-ae, the recently widowed mother of young Jun (Seon Jung-yeop). She decides to move from the city to her late husband’s small hometown, where even greater strife awaits. (I won’t spoil the depressing details.)
This could have been masochistic if it wasn’t for Jeon’s thorough commitment to the character. She makes sure the focus remains on Shin-ae rather than her suffering. Even the frequent sobbing is handled with relative delicacy, as there is a different dynamic to each such scene.
The amount of tragedy delivered by this story would feel abusive if a lesser talent was at its center.
In fact, this repeated motif is set up by a key early moment. After Shin-ae comes home to discover that Jun, her son, is hiding from her, she sheds crocodile tears in order to get him to come out. The “acting” here comes to mind during Shin-ae’s later breakdowns, which in comparison seem shatteringly authentic. Jeon offers a full portrait of a woman succumbing to grief.
Meanwhile, Secret Sunshine opens up to become a surprisingly nuanced exploration of forgiveness and the Christian faith. After a second tragedy befalls her, Shin-ae joins a local church (previously she had been disdainful of her neighbor’s efforts to bring her to a prayer service). It soon becomes clear, however, that she has embraced Christianity simply as a balm or sedative – something that will guarantee her happiness and a life free of pain. She even declares that she will forgive the man responsible for hurting her, in hopes of both proving she’s a good Christian woman and attaining the sort of peace forgiveness can bring. That exchange doesn’t play out exactly as she expects, however, sending her into another downward spiral and causing a fellow parishioner to observe, “It’s very hard to live by God’s word.”
Is religion a means to an end? Can Christianity “work” if it’s embraced as a selfish endeavor? These are questions I never expected to find in Secret Sunshine, yet the movie poses them in a provocative manner, one that’s all the more effective for being anchored in the context of an intricately complex character.