An exemplary examination of coping that expands to entail questions of morality, absolution and faith, Lee Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine is a masterwork of incisive melodrama. Opening to a shot of a clear blue sky that’s ultimately juxtaposed by a haunting image of a garbage-strewn dirt patch, Lee’s film concerns Shin-ae (Cannes best actress winner Jeon Do-yeon), who with her young son Jun (Seon Jeong-yeob) moves from Seoul to her late husband’s hometown of Miryang, which (per her deceased spouse’s nickname for the town) she hopes will be her own rejuvenating ray of “secret sunshine.” There, she finds a semi-unwanted friend in a clingy mechanic (Song Kang-ho) whose desire to start a romance isn’t reciprocated by Shin-ae, as well as the same sort of judgmental nastiness from locals that’s exuded by the brother (and, by extension, family) she left behind. Nonetheless, more unsettling than any social friction during the story’s early, relatively tranquil act are the subtle cracks that emerge in Shin-ae’s placid façade, be it an awkwardly presumptuous encounter with a storeowner or interactions with Jun – scary games of hide-and-seek, or mimicry of their lost father/husband’s snoring habits – that verge on the creepily unhealthy.
Lee treats Shin-ae and Jun’s rapport with an attentive empathy that culminates with the boy’s classroom public-speaking presentation, a moment of such happiness that the subsequent tragedy (not to be explicitly discussed here, but spoiler warnings ahead) cuts like a knife. From there, Secret Sunshine charts Shin-ae’s unbearable grief and embrace (after early dismissals) of a Christian God whose evangelical disciples blindly preach forgiveness, though once an attempt by Shin-ae to grant amnesty to an inmate backfires – in an absolutely devastating scene of stunned emotional and psychological swings – the grieving woman then instigates a war with the almighty. That conflict plays out via vindictive acts that would seem contrived if not for the material’s consistent believability in terms of moment-to-moment internal and external reactions. Lee wisely sublimates stylistic showmanship in favor of fixating on Do-yeon, whose lead performance is one of vivid, heartbreaking crisis wrought from not only loss but the unfulfilling emptiness that comes from her attempts to both deny and confront her reality. Do-yeon’s turn is the epicenter of what proves to be a complex, scathing and open-ended inquiry into the nature of religious belief and, more fundamentally still, the knotty relationship between everyday morality and higher-power piety, a tale told with subtlety and candor, compassion and rawness, grace and horror.