Secret Sunshine (밀양) – ★★★★★

Secret Sunshine (밀양)

Secret Sunshine (밀양)

Following her husband’s untimely death, Seoulite Sin-ae (Jeon Do-yeon (전도연) decides to fulfill the late man’s greatest wish by relocating to his hometown of Miryang and raise their son Jun. Initially the countryside town seems an odd place, yet Sin-ae quickly settles in by making acquaintances with overly friendly mechanic Jong-chan (Song Kang-ho (송강호) and setting up a piano academy. The newly single-mum also reveals her intentions to develop an area of land to the residents, and begins scouting with assistance Jong-chan in tow. Yet when a further terrible tragedy occurs, Sin-ae’s very sanity is tested as she struggles to cope in the aftermath. As she turns to any available source to alleviate her trauma, Jong-chan continues to try and help.

Sin-ae and Jun relocate to Miryang and meet friendly mechanic Jong-chan

Sin-ae and Jun relocate to Miryang and meet friendly mechanic Jong-chan

Secret Sunshine is an absolutely exceptional film and a true modern classic of Korean cinema.

Throughout his relatively small but undeniably brilliant filmography, director Lee Chang-dong (이창동) has keenly and insightfully explored a multitude of social discourses that afflict contemporary Korea. With Secret Sunshine the auteur examines the nature of grief and psychological instability following devastating trauma, as well as the ideology of small country towns alongside the devout embrace of religion. It’s extremely weighty material yet director Lee deftly constructs both the narrative and the visual aesthetic with such an assured poetic confidence that the themes combine seamlessly, as well as expressing a level of wisdom and awareness many other filmmakers can only dream of. The result is a drama that is a simultaneously beautiful and incredibly intense viewing experience, one which impresses and inspires on multiple levels with its insightful poignancy, while also exuding a power that resonates long after the credits roll.

The intensity and emotional magnitude of Secret Sunshine ironically lies in the subtle grace within which the story is told. The social-realism director Lee employs is as potent as ever, yet with Secret Sunshine he seems to remove any and all directorial flourishes. The approach is incredibly effective as the absence of dramatic devices allows the story to simply stand on its own merits and forces the audience to engage intellectually, emotionally, and morally with the topics being explored, as well as demand that they draw their own conclusions from the debates put forth. As such the film is a truly immersive experience that is ingenious in its simplicity yet phenomenally affecting.

Following a tragic incident, Sin-ae spirals into grief and despair

Following a tragic incident, Sin-ae spirals into grief and despair

Chiefly, the debates examined in Secret Sunshine are centered around the general negligence involved in suffering, and the role of religion in society. In taking a step away from employing potentially manipulative cinematic devices, director Lee quite naturally allows the issues to expose themselves for the ignorance and hypocrisy inherent within. The manner in which he does so is fascinating, as within the context of Shin-ae’s attempts to reconcile her grief he simply applies the logic of the ideology in question so that it ultimately ridicules itself. For example, Shin-ae’s internal conflict involving the notion of forgiveness is potently used to express the pretense involved in religion and in revealing the nature of grief, as well as articulating the narrow-minded sensibilities of the local community. The remarkable story itself holds the compulsion of debate, and director Lee is masterful in letting it speak volumes.

Yet Secret Sunshine would lack all conviction if not for the exquisite performance of Jeon Do-yeon. Jeon’s breathtaking, captivating turn as the grief-stricken mother earned her the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival, cementing her position as one of the most highly regarded film talents in Korean cinematic history. It is difficult to overstate just how incredible the performance is, as Jeon’s uncanny ability to inhabit a role rather than act it reaches unbelievable levels of sincerity and poignancy, absolutely deserving every ounce of praise and acclaim. From the moment Secret Sunshine begins it gradually becomes clear that Jeon infuses the character of Sin-ae with psychological instability, with the manner in which she transitions into different realms of neuroses following a series of terrible events a masterclass in acting prowess. Jeon Do-yeon’s performance is so mesmerizing that co-star Song Kang-ho is largely overshadowed, although he also provides a highly compelling role as overly-kind yet somewhat unnerving mechanic Jong-chan.

Sin-ae's fragile psychological disposition leads to looking for the secret in the sunshine

Sin-ae’s fragile psychological disposition leads to looking for the secret in the sunshine

Verdict:

Secret Sunshine is a truly exceptional film and a genuine modern classic of Korean cinema. Auteur Lee Chang-dong is simply remarkable in crafting the insightful story of grief, removing directorial flourishes to allow the incredible story to present debates on its own merits and forcing audience engagement with difficult material. Featuring an exquisite performance by Jeon Do-yeon, who took the top prize at Cannes for her role, Secret Sunshine is a phenomenal drama that every film fan should see.

★★★★★

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Mi-ja searches for the inspiration to write her first poem

Poetry (시) – ★★★★★

Poetry (시)

Poetry (시)

The search for inspiration is one that all artists must undertake. Often the inspiration comes from a source of beauty or passion, yet in the ever-developing world such notions can become subsumed beneath the financially-driven cynical lifestyles that people seemingly strive to achieve. This quandary is a frustration for Yang Mi-ja (Yoon Jung-hee (윤정희) as she struggles to find illumination for her poetry class. As a grandmother searching for beauty, Yoon Jung-hee gives an astonishing critically acclaimed performance that earned the Best Actress award at The 2010 Daejong Film Awards and  The  37th Annual Los Angeles Film Critics Association. Her performance, as well as the wonderfully understated script and direction by auteur Lee Chang-dong, makes Poetry (시) one of the most delicately – even ‘poetically’ – constructed, character driven pieces of realist cinema of the year, and is an incredible achievement.

Poetry tells the story of Yang Mi-ja (Yoon Jung-hee (윤정희), a grandmother who scrapes by working as a part-time care worker and claiming social benefits. Mi-ja has a slightly eccentric and cheerful disposition, and has the ‘veins of a poet’ according to her daughter. Seeing an advert for a poetry class at her local cultural center, Mi-ja jumps at the chance to express herself through the art form. However, despite all her attempts, she is unable to begin writing. This is compounded further as Mi-ja visits the hospital and discovers she has Alzheimer’s disease. With dementia setting in, she finds that writing becomes even more frustrating as simple words begin to elude her. Furthermore, Mi-ja is the guardian of her grandson Jong Wook (Lee David (이다윗), who has little tolerance and even less respect for her. Upon discovering that Wook has been involved in a serious crime, Mi-ja must endeavour to resolve the conflicts within her life and unveil an inspirational beauty in order to write her first poem.

Mi-ja searches for the inspiration to write her first poem

Mi-ja searches for the inspiration to write her first poem

Poetry begins (and ends) with the gentle flowing of water, which is a perfect allegory of how the narrative is presented. The gentle ‘flow’ of the narrative is expertly conveyed by director Lee Chang-dong, who never emphasizes plot points but merely allows them to subtly enter the life of his central protagonist, such as when the body of a young girl is slowly and delicately washed ashore to become a defining event. The decision to use hand-held techniques, while adding to the realism, is also similar in nature to the movement of the water and on occasion appears voyeuristic, as if the camera itself is the spirit of the young girl watching Mi-ja. Through Mi-ja, Lee Chang-dong explores a variety of societal and cultural issues that enter her world, though never in a confrontational manner and all while she strives to find inspirational beauty. For example, at Mi-ja’s poetry class the students share their experiences of a moment of happiness. Each tale is simultaneously sorrowful and poignant, such as finding love in an extra-marital affair, highlighting the differences between social expectation and reality. For Mi-ja, her diagnosis as an Alzheimer’s patient is blunt and borders on rude, while it’s entirely possible the appointment was forgotten shortly after leaving the hospital. Mi-ja’s part-time job as a carer is also illuminating in portraying the plight of the disabled and lonely. But by far the most pressing concern for Lee Chang-dong is the nature of crime and punishment expressed through Mi-ja’s grandson.

Mi-ja's grandson Wook displays little remorse for his crime

Mi-ja’s grandson Wook displays little remorse for his crime

Wook – and his friends – have committed a crime, and as with the other events in Poetry, there is no revelation in regards to this new information. Instead, the father’s of all involved invite Mi-ja to meet for lunch in order to discuss a settlement so that charges are never filed against their children. Again, director Lee Chang-dong subtly enters this event within the narrative, but the nature of the crime is so serious, that the objective way in which the conversation transpires and lack of any emotional display emphasises the abhorrent and selfish nature of all involved. The notion of such settlement is common practice in Korean culture, and Lee Chang-dong expresses his disgust for it through Mi-ja as she silently stands and exits the room. Compounding the act further is that the young criminals have no remorse. Everyone continues as if nothing has happened. Mi-ja however is weighed down by the issue, internalizing her frustrations while continuing on her quest to understand beauty in a world she sees precious little of.

Mi-ja must understand the 'essence' of her subject

Mi-ja must understand the ‘essence’ of her subject

Yoon Jung-hee is truly wonderful as Mi-ja. She conveys the subtle elegance of a woman striving to achieve something noteworthy in her life, but being coerced into events beyond her control that halt her from doing so. Jung-hee’s strength, eccentricity, resilience and ambition are poignantly conveyed by the veteran actress who fully deserves her accolades. Mi-ja is a woman of modest means, yet is inspirational to those around her in attempting to articulate beauty within a poem. Her decisions that lead to the discovery of her subject are incredibly poignant, and her understanding of the beauty within inspires her to write a heart-wrenchingly beautiful and eloquent poem that lingers long after it has been recited.

Mi-ja is a courageous and resilient woman

Mi-ja is a courageous and resilient woman

Verdict:

Poetry is an incredible film. The script, the direction, and the acting come together perfectly to create a wonderfully subtle and elegant narrative about a woman on a search of discovery, yet the understated social commentary that is interwoven organically within it elevates the film even higher. Poetry is, without doubt, a must-see film.

★★★★★

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