Death leaves a heartache no one can heal.
Secret Sunshine (Milyang) (2007) is a Korean drama written and directed by Chang-dong Lee, based on the novel by Chong-jun Yi. The film stars Do-Yeon Jeon (The Housemaid), Kang-ho Song (Thirst), and Jung-yeop Seon. A mother moves with her son to the town where her deceased husband was born, when she experiences another tragic event.
I admire watching films that are successful in portraying the unique emotional vulnerabilities that only a woman can experience — individually, the emotional unraveling due to the loss of a child. In Secret Sunshine, a mother, unfortunately, learns the hard way, the importance of keeping financial affairs private.
Secret Sunshine is the translation of the word “Miryang,” the childhood home of her now deceased husband. Now widowed, she decides to move to the town with her son Jun (Jung-yeop Seon) and build a house with the life insurance money. This way, her son could grow up in the same town as his father. On their way to Miryang, her car breaks down. The mechanic, Kim Jong-chan (Kang-ho Song), arrives and kind of awkwardly, befriends him. She begins establishing herself in the town, enrolls her son in school and begins dispensing advice to neighboring businesses. She starts her own business as a piano teacher, giving piano lessons to the local children.
The locals are kind of suspicious of her; a single woman, alone with a small child, in town to start her own business. Not only did this seem “weird” to them, but a local pharmacist also did not understand her stance on not being a Christian. Nonetheless, she is optimistic that everything will come together in the end. Eventually, the local women warm up to her, and they go out for drinks and karaoke. She returns home only to find her son missing. Just as she realizes her son is gone, she receives a call from the alleged kidnapper demanding all of the money from her husband’s insurance policy; and to dump the cash on the outskirts of town, in a parking lot.
He husband, dead. Now, similar fears about her son. When the kidnapping goes awry–the kidnapper phones Shin-ae to ask for more money. The amount she dumped was less than the kidnapper had expected. She had to explain, that was all the money she had; she had to buy a car; establish her business and a place for them to stay when the detectives contact Shin-ae and escort her to a local river to identify the body of her child. Her world is now in stark silence.
The events that occur after that are reactions to the bitter realities of loss; here, she finds God, involves in petty theft–adultery. There’s no comfort in religion. God isn’t enough in her world of sadness.
But honestly, how does one depict on-film, the tragedy of losing a child? The film did not proceed in a predictable manner of just hunting down a child murderer; instead, it chronicled the emotional turmoil of a grieving mother. Secret Sunshine serves as a brilliant character story and not the first poignant tormented character portrayal for director Chang-dong Lee. In the film Poetry, where an older woman who has Alzheimer’s confronts the realities of her grandson’s involvement with the gang rape of a young girl; and in Oasis two societal misfits find love amidst the disapproval of their families.
Secret Sunshine is a film focused on a genuinely emotional character study of suffering–trying to un-learn or negate the most critical aspect of her life—motherhood. I have found it extremely difficult trying to describe a film filled with powerful emotional presence; without giving too much of the movie away. Do-Yeon as Shin-ae gives viewers nothing less than her every emotional outbreak–poising for every believable, heart-wrenching moment as a mother in crisis. Her struggle in coping with such a life-altering tragedy is what makes this film beyond memorable.
Kang-ho, as Kim Jong-chan presents a form of stability in all of the extraordinary events of the film. It is as if he is there when you cannot withstand the brutal reality of Shin-ae loss. He provides a constant sullen and gentle comedic tenacity that makes the more depressing moments in this film almost bearable.