Sunday, April 10, 2011

Are You Watching? Can You See?

I like movies that take a swing at the fences, movies that have ambition. Usually, this means that I like movies that examine the unbearable lightness of being human, but it also equates to an appetite for movies that examine humankind's place in the grand scheme of things. Some of my favorite movies--particularly those by Ingmar Bergman--examine humanity's relationship with god (or gods). The ones I like best are the ones about the downward spiral, whether that movie is Nightmare Alley or Unforgiven. Tales of the fall, if you will. This may seem a perverse appetite for an atheist, particularly one who is a pure existentialist, and you're probably right. I say all of this because it explains the impact that Chang-dong Lee's Secret Sunshine (2007) had on me. It takes a swing at the fences and it's a tale of the fall.

Secret Sunshine is in three acts. In the first, single mother Lee Shin-ae relocates to her late husband's hometown in order to start over. She opens a piano school, takes on students, and strikes up an awkward friendship with Kim Jong-Chan, the mechanic who repaired her car when it was stuck on the road into town. The early part of the movie is a kind of slice of life melodrama, but there are hints of what's to come. Her son is unruly and likes to vanish from her supervision when she's distracted. This trait leads the film into its second act, which is a suspense thriller. Shin-ae's son is kidnapped. The kidnapper has mistaken Shin-ae for a land speculator and when the amount of money she is able to raise for the ransom doesn't meet his expectations, he kills the boy. The third act is where the movie blindsided me. In the third act, Shin-ae, presented earlier in the film as an atheist, finds god in her grief and becomes a member of an evangelical Christian church. In trying to live up to the tenets of her newfound faith, Shin-ae vows to forgive the murderer of her son and dutifully makes an appointment to see him in prison. The murderer has also found god, and claims that god has forgiven him. This comes as a blow to Shin-ae, and she begins to question what kind of god would forgive such a man. In her rage and grief, she becomes an active enemy of god, and begins a campaign of mischief against god's agents on Earth. "I won't lose to you, mother fucker," she rages at her adversary, as she spirals into madness.

This is an atheist's movie, I think, though for a long chunk of its running time, I wasn't really sure of this. I'll admit to becoming irritated with the religiosity of the back end of the movie. Fortunately, this doesn't have an evangelical bent. Indeed, it seems to be an argument for a silent, indifferent god, or a non-existent one in the first place. I wonder if this theme is what delayed the film from getting an American release for so long. I wouldn't doubt it. I'm of two minds about Shin-ae's campaign against god. On the one hand, it seems a bit modest. I describe the film as taking a swing at the fences, but in this regard, it's playing small ball. Shin-ae's acts of mischief seem fairly inconsequential. For a national cinema known for outre vengeance scenarios, this kind of surprises me. Fortunately, Jeon Do-yeon sells the whole thing as Shin-ae. When she looks up at god after she cuts her wrist near the end of the movie and asks him, "Are you watching? Can you see?", the movie radiates a dark chill. The light of madness in her eyes is an image that followed me home. I can't shake it even now, a couple of days after I saw the film.

Director Chang-dong Lee handles each of the movie's mood swings with an assured hand. Lee has dialed down his usual love of misfits here and long stretches of the film have the blankfaced deadpan of an art movie. It's beautifully filmed, but that's so common in Korean film these days that it scarcely bears mentioning anymore. If I want to see the state of the art in moviemaking craft anymore, I turn to Korea.

Lee has the luxury of having two of the best actors in Asia in his cast. Jeon Do-yeon, as I've already mentioned, is astonishing. As it was with Hye-ja Kim in Mother last year, Secret Sunshine is an essential film for anyone who cares about the art of acting. Song Kang-ho adds another amiable doofus to his repertoire here. If I hadn't seen him as the rich man in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, I'd suspect that he was mainly playing himself a la Cary Grant or John Wayne. This is a different shade of doofus for the actor, though, and he's the anchor that keeps the movie from spiraling into nihilism. He's a portrait of unrequited romantic devotion.

Lee appoints the movie with wonderful small flourishes that pay off down the line. When Shin-ae tells her neighbor that she should paint the interior of her shop with a brighter color near the beginning of the film, it's an awkward scene that speaks to the fact that Shin-ae is a fish out of water. Lee revisits this conversation twice: once in a beauty parlor, where Shin-ae overhears her neighbor snarking about her, and then at the end when her neighbor offers her some measure of vindication. Lee does something similar with the scene where Shin-ae goes to Kim's garage to ask him to help her after her son is kidnapped. She's brought up short to see him singing karaoke alone. She turns away from him and flees. Later, this forms a part of the worst dinner date ever. Most of the small elements become the equivalent of chess pieces for the director, and he arranges them in ever more strategic configurations as the movie progresses. It should be noted, however, that Lee isn't drawing any conclusions. So if it's a chess game you want, prepare for a match with no endgame. Lee doesn't provide any tidy summations. He doesn't come down on any particular side--though I rather think he has a dim view of religion. Prepare to take away from this film what you bring to it. For myself, I bring my own atheism to it, and lo and behold, that's what stares back at me when I look at it. Your mileage may vary.

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