In the opening moments of South Korean writer-director Lee Chang-Dong’s Secret Sunshine, a recent widow and her young son are relocating from Seoul to the small town of Milyang — the birthplace of the woman’s late husband — when their car breaks down en route. “I don’t know where I am,” says the woman, Shin-Ae, to the voice at the other end of a road-assist cell-phone call — a statement, it turns out, that doesn’t just describe her position on a lonely stretch of highway.
Built around a revelatory performance by Jeon Do-Yeon, which was justly rewarded with the Best Actress prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Secret Sunshine begins as the story of how Shin-Ae adjusts to her new surroundings and, prompted by the evangelical proselytizing of a born-again pharmacist, takes stock of her faith (or lack thereof) in some higher power. Then, without warning, the film transitions into nail-biting thriller territory, and after that into the kind of allegorical portrait of human suffering favored by Lars von Trier and Robert Bresson. If it seems difficult to imagine how one movie could possibly be all of those things, it may be even harder to conceive of the agility with which Lee, a former high school teacher and novelist whose résumé also includes a recent stint as his country’s cultural minister, guides the film through its corkscrew reversals of light comedy and high melodrama, utter despair and flickerings of hope.
To say much more would be to risk violating the delicate construction of Secret Sunshine, which is that rare movie where it is as difficult to predict what will happen 10 minutes in as it is two hours later. There is no harm, however, in saying a few things about Lee Chang-Dong, whose films have failed to attract an international cult audience comparable to those attained by his countrymen Kim Ki-Duk (The Isle) and Park Chan-Wook (Oldboy), but who may well be the most gifted Korean director of his generation. Void of extravagant bodily dismemberments or elaborate torture-revenge schemes, Lee’s films favor the perils and pitfalls of everyday life, the search for belonging, and the tension between the past and the present. In the oddball romance Oasis (2002) — the only one of Lee’s four films to secure a U.S. theatrical release — a young woman afflicted with cerebral palsy begins an affair with the ex-con who raped her. In Peppermint Candy (1999), a man’s life story is told backward over two decades, ending with tragedy and beginning with triumph. During his recent visit to New York, I spoke to Lee about his new film, his unusual methods and the mysteries of faith.
L.A. WEEKLY: It seems impossible to talk about this film without discussing its abrupt and unpredictable changes in tone. What interested you about telling a story in this way?
LEE CHANG-DONG: This is a film about life, and in life many things happen, but we can never be sure of what’s going to happen next. This mysterious and secretive aspect of what life is about — from the beginning, that’s what I wanted to show.
And did you feel confident that the audience would follow the characters willingly on this strange journey?
There are films where the viewer just kind of flows along with the story; I didn’t want to take that approach. The approach I wanted to take was a film where I would meet the viewer within the film. In Korea, when the film was released, you could hear people in the bathrooms of the cinemas afterward cursing the film. People said, “Why did the film end that way?” They got annoyed. But this is a film where, even though people may criticize it in the bathroom, by the time they get home they won’t have forgotten the film.
What was it about the city of Milyang that made you want to set a film there?
It was the name of the city to begin with, which means “secret sunshine” when it’s literally translated. But Milyang itself is a place that there isn’t anything particularly special about. It’s very ordinary — a typical city in the provinces. It’s the kind of place where, if somebody were to come down from Seoul, they would say, “Why would anybody want to live here?” So, that kind of ironic contrast was of interest, between the name and then the place itself.
The first image in the film is that of a clear blue sky seen through a car windshield, and throughout the film there are many other shots of the sky and the characters looking up at it. What are they looking for?
Shin-Ae is the type of person who’s always looking for the meaning of life; we all have that part of us. She has wishes and hopes and she wants to find meaning, but for her that meaning is always somewhere off in the distance, and the sky is something that’s also off in the distance. I wanted to throw this question out to the audience: In our lifetime, what is God? And if there is a God, what is the hidden truth? If there is a God, then I think the meaning of God is that we need to find reality for ourselves right here on Earth, in terms of the meaning of life, grace, redemption, all of that. It’s all here right before us. Yes, the film starts with a shot of the sky, but it ends with a shot of the ground.
AFI Fest will screen Secret Sunshine on Fri., Nov. 2, at 6:45 p.m. and Sun., Nov. 4, at 3 p.m.