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Secret Sunshine: The Criterion Collection

The Criterion Collection // Unrated // August 23, 2011
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted August 16, 2011 | E-mail the Author
Still reeling from the recent death of her husband, Shin-ae (Jeon Do-yeon) desperately needed to escape. Relocating from the bustling metropolis of Seoul to her late husband's
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hometown of Miryang makes her in some way still feel connected to the man she loved so deeply. Miryang also offers Shin-ae a chance to build an entirely new life with her young son Jun -- one not weighed down by the baggage of her past or the watchful eyes of her overbearing family. With this sort of clean slate, Shin-ae can mold herself into whoever she wants to be. Touting her education at a prestigious conservatory, she quickly opens a beautifully decorated piano instructional school. She also announces to seemingly anyone who'll listen that she's looking for just the right plot of land to build a new home. It doesn't last. Shin-ae's journey to Miryang is borne from loss, and yet she's almost immediately reminded that there's still so much more that can be savagely stripped away from her.

I'll confess to being somewhat uncertain how much of the premise of Secret Sunshine I ought to reveal. To be clear, it's not that this a film driven by the mechanics of its plot, but the severity and cruelty of what Shin-ae is forced to endure are heightened by how suddenly it all happens. That she and the audience are so utterly blindsided makes the dramatic shifts in tone that much more impactful, and to spell out what happens even early on -- no matter how well in advance the film foreshadows some of it -- does Secret Sunshine a great disservice. Indeed, this is a film that may be best experienced knowing nothing at all beforehand. Director Lee Chang-dong spends the early moments of Secret Sunshine crafting an immersively vivid reality and layered, richly drawn characters, immediately seizing hold of the audience's attention well before any recognizable genre can begin to take shape.

Indeed, much of the power of Secret Sunshine is owed to that sense that this is all real...that these are living, breathing people rather than overtly cinematic constructs. For instance, the bond between Shin-ae and her son Jun ranks as perhaps the most convincing I've seen captured on film: tender, playful, and, considering that she's decided Jun is all that's left of her family in the wake of her husband's untimely death, understandably overprotective. At the same time, Shin-ae herself is still rather young, and her overprotective streak sometimes gives way for irresponsible, indefensible distraction. It's
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inconsistent but in a way that too many of us have been guilty. With as many games as Jun plays with his mother early on -- feigning that he's limp and lifeless or trying to hide himself from view -- it quickly becomes clear that, at some point, an unspeakably terrible fate awaits him...that this game will become all too horrifyingly real. Considerable tension is drawn out from the uncertainty of when it will happen and what form it will take. If Lee Chang-dong had decided to craft a thriller with Secret Sunshine -- and I briefly thought that was, in fact, the path he was taking -- there's no doubt it would've ranked among the most exceptional of recent memory. Though there are elements of suspense, Lee is ultimately more fascinated by the aftermath than the traumatic event that inevitably tears Shin-ae apart from her son.

The skill, talent, and craftsmanship behind Secret Sunshine cannot be overstated. Lee Chang-dong directs with a light touch. During a heartrending phone call, we hear only Shin-ae's side of the conversation. There's no need for the menacing voice on the other end of the line to be heard; the sight of Shin-ae's unraveling says it all. The score by Argentine composer Christian Basso accentuates scenes rather than heavy-handedly shove viewers towards the desired effect. Lee has the restraint to let key dramatic moments play without any underlying music at all and is even willing to keep the camera at a distance from his grieving characters, at times resisting the urge to exploit their pain in unforgiving closeups. Again, it's an approach that furthers Secret Sunshine's sense of reality. Lee allows me to lose myself in the this world he's I rarely can with Western cinema's tendency to overemphatically play its notes. Jeon Do-yeon won a well-earned award at Cannes for her lead performance in Secret Sunshine, and she truly is a revelation. From her dazed sleepwalking in the wake of tragedy to the primal yells of grief she unleashes in church, Shin-ae is pitted against a gruelingly intense and greatly varied assortment of emotions, and Jeon captures every last one of them flawlessly. Shin-ae's gradual disintegration -- the way she valiantly attempts to rebuild a life for herself only to see it all come crumbling down again, at times at her own self-destructive hand -- is devastating to watch. How truly impressive it is that Shin-ae never feels anything less than real despite the fact that we know surprisingly little about her. Jeon's performance and sweeping emotions speak for themselves.

Though Korean cinema mainstay Song Kang-ho does play a prospective romantic interest -- Jong-chan, who relentlessly dotes on Shin-ae and closely shadows her like an overeager puppy -- that's not the love story Secret Sunshine is interested in telling. As Dennis Lim describes it in the essay enclosed with this
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Blu-ray release, the romance is not between a man and a woman but between Shin-ae and her concept of God...and what a stormy relationship it proves to be. Secret Sunshine is very much a character study, yes, but it's also an exploration of Christianity from the outside looking in. Lee neither proselytizes nor condemns, delving into the transformative power of religion with an even hand. Christianity is a great comfort for Shin-ae when she most desperately needs it. Community and unconditional love empower her to rebuild her life when all other hope seemed lost. It's just that Shin-ae embraces religion when it gives her the answers she needs and wants...and when it doesn't, her faith evaporates. Christianity is portrayed as a powerful, transformative force, one that isn't always positive and one that Shin-ae only acknowledges when it serves her purposes. Secret Sunshine explores the good and the bad in the church itself as well as its adherents. There are no easy answers, nor should there be. Secret Sunshine also uses religion as a metaphor for the city of Miryang as a whole, exploring Shin-ae's attempts to integrate herself into an unfamiliar and at times unforgiving and unwelcoming new community.

I am in awe of what Lee Chang-dong and his immeasurably talented cast and crew have accomplished with Secret Sunshine, an enthralling character study of a young mother who has everything that once defined her life cruelly stripped away from her. Lee's craftsmanship as a filmmaker is nothing less than masterful, and Jeon Do-yeon's incendiary lead performance ranks as perhaps the most emotionally resonant in any film I've experienced in quite a number of years. Secret Sunshine is a deeply rewarding discovery on Blu-ray and easily among the greatest recent foreign productions to grace Criterion's esteemed collection. Highly Recommended.

Culled directly from the digital intermediate, Criterion's Blu-ray release of Secret Sunshine ought to rival, if not outclass, the very best theatrical screenings of the film. The scope photography is consistently razor-sharp and dazzlingly detailed. In stark contrast to the somber tone of Secret Sunshine, the palette is bright and sumptuously vivid. Black levels are robust throughout, while whites have somewhat of a tendency to be deliberately blown out, as if the viewer is squinting while stepping outside for the first time on a sunny summer afternoon. Benefitting from a healthy bitrate, there are no traces of digital artifacting throughout, and edge enhancement is never a nuisance either. The image at times does take on a slightly video-like appearance, but I'm sure that dates back to the creation of the digital intermediate and should in no way be considered a flaw specific to this Blu-ray disc. Very much in keeping with the dizzyingly high standards Criterion has set for itself.

Secret Sunshine's AVC encode spans both layers of this BD-50 disc, and the film's original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 has been preserved on Blu-ray.

The 24-bit, six-channel DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on Secret Sunshine is outstanding. Though this is a film very much driven by dialogue and the visual aspects of its performances, its sound design is nonetheless remarkably immersive. Great efforts have been taken to ensure that the streets of Miryang sound vibrant and alive, taking full advantage of every channel at its disposal. The surround channels are teeming with atmospheric color, from lapping water to idle chatter to reverb in a cavernous church. The score also roars from the rear speakers when appropriate and is reinforced by a substantial low-end. Bass response is understandably subdued much of the time, but the subwoofer snarls when called for, such as the thunderous thump in a karaoke bar. Criterion has, of course, presented Secret Sunshine in its original Korean, and, a couple of intentionally chaotic moments aside, its dialogue is without fail balanced cleanly and clearly in the mix.

Secret Sunshine's optional English subtitles are enabled by default. Viewers with constant image height projection rigs can rest easy that the subtitles are rooted in the primary image rather than in the letterboxing bars.

  • Interview (25 min.; HD): The featured extra on Secret Sunshine is this half-hour interview with director Lee Chang-dong. Lee shies away
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    from discussing the mechanics of filmmaking and instead places the emphasis squarely on Secret Sunshine's characters, setting, and themes. A concerted effort to capture reality is a dominant topic of discussion, such as predominantly casting actors who hail from the general vicinity of Miryang and veering away from overly cinematic conventions. Lee also delves into what would prove to be an uneasy collaboration with Jeon Do-yeon, wanting her to experience her character's emotions rather than simply follow his explicit direction, prompting Jeon to essentially hate him during the course of production. I particularly enjoyed Lee's exploration into the minds of Secret Sunshine's two central characters, especially the very different ways Shin-ae and Jong-chan want to be perceived. Essential viewing.

  • On the Set of Secret Sunshine (7 min.; SD): Upconverted from standard definition, Secret Sunshine's making-of featurette alternates between behind-the-scenes footage and cast interviews. There's some brief discussion of Lee Chang-dong's guiding hand as a director and how emotionally grueling a film this was to craft, and also scattered throughout is a fair amount of footage of Song Kang-ho clowning around between takes.

  • Trailer (1 min.; HD): Rounding out the extras is a minute-long domestic trailer for Secret Sunshine.

The handsomely designed booklet for Secret Sunshine features a terrific essay by Dennis Lim.

The Final Word
Secret Sunshine has undeservedly languished in obscurity for the past few years, and I'm thrilled to see that Lee Chang-dong's masterfully crafted and brilliantly acted film has been rescued by Criterion. A work of art this spectacular would be an essential discovery in any form, but Secret Sunshine takes particular advantage of a release on Blu-ray, as its striking cinematography and marvelous sound design benefit immensely from the resolution and clarity that the format has to offer. The disc's extras aren't numerous but are all well worth taking the time to explore. It may also be worth noting that Poetry, Lee's most recent effort, arrives on Blu-ray the same week as Secret Sunshine, and what a tremendous double feature that would be. Highly Recommended.
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