After an interminable four-year delay, Secret Sunshine has finally reached U.S. shores thanks to the fine folks at Criterion. The South Korean film garnered international acclaim at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival (Palme d’Or nominee and Best Actress winner) but then vanished with barely a trace here, apparently failing to secure domestic U.S. video distribution until now. Thankfully, it was well worth the wait and so timeless that it could have remained in the vault for decades without losing any of its power. That’s thanks primarily to a knockout performance by lead actress Do-Yeon Jeon, ably abetted by writer/director Chang-Dong Lee and veteran star Kang-Ho Song.
Jeon stars as a widower who moves with her young son from the bustling metropolis of Seoul to a small town near the southern end of Korea in the hopes of a fresh start. It’s not entirely fresh though, because the town is the home city of her deceased husband, making her choice something of a tribute to him. The tight-knit locals are welcoming but a but standoffish, especially when she fails to ingratiate herself by suggesting changes to their set ways within days of arriving, such as the paint color in a local store. A local mechanic (Song) becomes smitten with her, happily following her around like a puppy dog, much to her general annoyance. When she sets out to buy land in the area, the locals become even more interested in her business, leading to a tragic event that colors the rest of the film.
The early scenes portray the mother and son bonding and adjusting to their new home, making it all too clear that something bad will happen. Sure enough, her land speculation leads the locals to believe she’s sitting on a pot of gold, causing a cab driver to kidnap her son for ransom. When she delivers only a fraction of the expected payout, the cabbie kills her son and soon lands in prison, sending her into a tailspin of grief that becomes the defining focus of the film. Meanwhile, the ever-present mechanic functions as unwavering support and something akin to comic relief, diffusing the heavy emotional baggage about to be lugged through the remainder of the film. Song is likeable and surprisingly understated in the role, eschewing his usual leading man position for this choice supporting role.
It’s painful but completely riveting to watch Jeon take her character to the depths of despair and back, with such raw and unbridled emotion that it’s shocking to learn that the actress isn’t actually a mother. She doesn’t rely on hysterics save for a few choice moments, instead largely operating with a dull resignation that fully conveys the grief caused by the situation. Her character’s path doesn’t follow strict expected stages of grief, but incorporates religion in intriguing ways, first in her attempt to find and embrace religion, but later as a rejection so thorough that she spitefully asks God if he’s watching while she acts out in an extremely inappropriate manner. The source of her fall from grace is her visit with her son’s killer in prison, a meeting with an outcome so unexpected that it’s simply astonishing to see her so completely destroyed by its surprising turn, especially when that destruction is registered via little more than her eyes. Lee makes it clear in the bonus features that he didn’t set out to make a religious film, and yet there’s no escaping its recurrent and inextricable presence and the impact it has on the character.
The new digital transfer on the Blu-ray looks phenomenal, fully communicating the details of the small town and its colorful local characters (most of them non-professional actors) with crisp precision. The soundtrack is 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, although there’s fairly minimal channel separation due to the intimate nature of the film. Bonus features are rather slight but include the aforementioned very insightful interview with Lee, as well as a behind the scenes featurette with interviews with Song and Jeon.
Secret Sunshine is now available on Criterion Blu-ray and DVD.