Background : Directed by Lee Chang-dong (Oasis, Green Fish), Secret Sunshine is a South Korean film about people and God. While not the most Christian of the Asian countries, South Korea seems to be slowly growing to become so. In 1920 there were only about 300,000 Christians in all of Korea (1). Yet, in the 1995 census about 26% of the population were recorded as Christian (2), and its growth continues to surmount. This film is made in the midst of all that rapid change, both religiously and culturally it clearly represents the current climate. However, according to Chang-dong, the master behind the film, it is not about Christianity (3), which I entirely agree with. This film is about people, and more specifically it is about people and how they respond to God.
Audience : I have read other reviews of this film and it seems to be very common for people to take it as a critique or criticism of the Church and evangelism, even possibly being anti-Christian. Given the background of the film, however, and also the fact that Christianity seems to pop up in all of Chang-dong’s other work, none of these could really be true. So, do not be deterred by this thought. Given how easily misunderstood this film can be, however, I would say that the best audience would be growing adult Christians who have an open mind to difficult subject matters.
Fallen Warning : The film takes place in a fallen world, so there is some foul language (though subtitled), some interesting conversations between Jong Chan’s friends, a bit of blood, and a subtle yet present sex/affair scene. This is a heavy movie however, both emotionally and spiritually, so be cautious.
Brief Summary : Following her husband’s death, Sin-ae (Do-yeon Jeon) moves with her son Jun to Miryang, her husband’s birth home, to begin a new life. Shortly after she begins to feel more comfortable there, she is faced with great tragedy and is driven into emotional toil.
Analysis : (Spoilers) Essentially, the brief summary is the entire film. Sin-ae and Jun move to Miryang, where most people think she is weird for moving to the place where her deceased husband was born. She becomes friends with a local mechanic, who hits on her till the end, though ends up being her greatest friend. And, then her son is kidnapped and killed. The rest of the film consists of Sin-ae struggling with the grief of losing her son. She is introduced to God by the local church, which helps her for a while to face the pain, but after she attempts to forgive the killer, she becomes increasingly bitter towards God, fighting and sinning against Him, though never letting Him go, and this is what leads to an eventual downfall where she attempts suicide. The film ends shortly after she is released from the hospital, with her emotional state still at a shaky level. So, the film doesn’t actually resolve her story. However, this is a good thing, for the film is called Secret Sunshine for a reason. Instead of the story’s point being focused on Do-yeon Jeon’s breathtaking Naomi/Mara like performance, Chang-dong tells his point through the rest of the characters of the film. From Jong Chan, the mechanic, who begins to go to church because he loves Sin-ae, yet who ends up in love with the happiness that God provides him, to the peace that Sin-ae’s son’s killer finds in coming to God in prison, to the skill of cutting hair that the killer’s daughter learns, secret sunshine — as in God’s will that we may not notice — is found everywhere throughout the film. Yet, this secret sunshine is ultimately what leads Sin-ae to become bitter towards God; for, she cannot understand why He would show so much love to everyone else, especially her son’s killer, yet take her own son from her. She transposes from cold and hard grief, to peace from God, to confusion about what God’s will actually is, to bitterness and anger towards God, which becomes her bulwark against any possible further contact from God. Instead of trying to listen and understand why these things are happening, she focuses on her own pain and tries to drown out God’s voice; she continually tries to intervene where God is present so that she is the one heard instead, from pounding on the pews in church, to drowning out prayer services with music, to throwing rocks at the windows of prayer meetings. She is screaming at God for attention, yet her screaming is the thing which keeps her from hearing His reply. Though she will not listen, God continues to work through her pain to bring others nearer to Him, and it is ultimately her decision to choose to do the same, and the audience’s decision as to what her future path will hold. This film is essential to any Christian. It teaches us to be joyous when God works to bring others to Him, in spite of our own aching hearts, and it teaches us that if we run from God and pin Him up as the enemy, we will only find our own turmoil and suffering. It is very difficult to watch Sin-ae be filled with so much agony and anger, and thus it can easily be misunderstood as a film that teaches that Christianity (and God) poisons everything — though this is certainly not true; because of this struggle that Chang-dong has created, the film is very emotionally and spiritually difficult. However, the struggle that she faces (not to mention Do-yeon Jeon amazing performance), and the same struggle that most Christians will come across at some point in their lives — dealing with God’s sometimes difficult will — are well enough reasons to make this a must see at some point in one’s journey.
“We were promised sufferings. They were part of the program. We were even told, ‘Blessed are they that mourn,’ and I accept it. I’ve got nothing that I hadn’t bargained for. Of course it is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not imagination.” – C. S. Lewis
Further Recommendations : C. S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed and The Problem of Pain, Josh Riebock’s Heroes and Monsters, and M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs.