Characters having nervous breakdowns on film are not a new cinematic motif, but Lee Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine presents a mental collapse just about as well as any director ever has. It’s raw, visceral, and mortifying to watch such a candid exploration of a woman tottering on the edge of madness, and the director never spares us for a second of the film’s lengthy running time. At the same time, despite only minimal suggestions of a brighter future, the film isn’t completely and hopelessly bleak, and the director has filmed such stark, warts-and-all emotions in the boldest and brightest possible hues.
Secret Sunshine (Blu-ray)
Directed by Lee Chang-dong
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 1080p AVC codec
Running Time: 142 minutes
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Korean
MSRP: $ 39.95
Release Date: August 23, 2011
Review Date: August 14, 2011
Shin-ae (Jeon Do-yeon) gave up a promising career as a classical pianist to get married early and have a son (Seon Jeong-yeob). With the husband gone, Shin-ae has moved to his hometown Miryang to make a fresh start as a piano teacher. She makes friends in the neighborhood and is even crushed on by local garage mechanic Jong-chan (Seon Jeong-yeob) though she has no real interest in encouraging his romantic overtures. She leaves her son at home alone one night to go drinking with her girl friends and returns home only to find the small child missing followed quickly by a phone call demanding a ransom. She raises all the money she has and does just as the kidnapper asks, but the child inevitably turns up dead at which point her world completely collapses around her. Every attempt to regain emotional stability (discovering the identity of the abductor, religion becoming foremost in her thoughts and its subsequent rocky path in her life) sends another brickbat her way, the pain of her loss seeming only to grow day by day.
Lee Chang-dong has both written and directed the film, and his brazen, uncompromising examination of a soul in torment really gets under one’s skin. The close-ups get a bit repetitious, however, over the course of two plus hours, especially since Jeon Do-yeon is in almost every scene, and no new outfits or hairstyles can allay that slight sense of tedium that sets in once we’ve plumbed the abyss with her and must continue to grovel in the mire (shoplifting, propositioning men, reckless driving) until the film reaches its conclusion. As the film focuses heavily on the lead’s religious conversion and then her intricate struggles with maintaining her faith, the church scenes could have used some definite trimming as they do tend to go on far longer than necessary.The writer-director has installed the lighter, more fun-loving character of Jong-chan to serve as a solace from the film’s continual tonal gloom, but we spend very little time getting to know the character, so his intrusive hanging-on to Shin-ae after she’s made it clear she’s not interested isn’t quite the respite from hopelessness that the film needs. The director does establish the realistic, gossipy small town feel for the locale that does make us commiserate with Shin-ae since she can’t escape her past or her present with these “friends” all cued in on practically every move she makes.
Make no mistake, however, Jeon Do-yeon richly deserved the Best Actress award at Cannes for her performance here: a lacerating, vivid open wound of a performance that has had few equals in recent cinema, and in the film’s opening half hour when things are bright and beautiful, you’ll not find a more appealing mother who has an endearing way with her adorable son (played with spunky fervor by Seon Jeong-yeob). Song Gang-ho certainly lightens the load as the good-natured grease monkey whose attraction to Shin borders on stalking. Kim Young-Jae has a couple of appealing scenes as Shin’s brother, and Cho Young-jin as the kidnapper gets to reveal several different facets of his persona in three different stages of the movie, particularly radiant in Shin’s visit to him in prison after his capture.
The film has been framed at 2.35:1 and is presented in 1080p using the AVC codec. Contrast is very bright on the transfer making for a brilliantly colored and exceptionally sharp picture. Flesh tones may be a bit pinker than one might expect, but overall they’re very appealing. There’s a bit of flashing on tight line structures later in the movie, but overall, compression artifacts have been held to a minimum. The white subtitles are very easy to read. The film has been divided into 31 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound mix is an effective if somewhat subdued endeavor. Dialogue has been well recorded and resides in the center channel. The music by Christian Basso and some select ambient effects (rain during a storm, traffic noises in busy streets) do get placed around the soundstage extending it moderately well. The LFE channel gets only one moment to show its stuff, but it’s a real jump-from-your-seat moment.
An interview with writer-director Lee Chang-dong includes information on what he wanted his story to achieve, how he chose his actors for the film, and the particular problems he had in working with them, particularly his leading lady. This 1080p featurette runs 24 ½ minutes.
“On the Set of Secret Sunshine” is a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film with brief interviews with the director and his two stars along with some candid shots of the actors getting into character. It runs 6 ¾ minutes in 1080i.
The English-language theatrical trailer runs 1 ¼ minutes in 1080p.
The enclosed 19-page booklet contains cast and crew lists, some beautiful color stills from the movie, and film magazine editor Dennis Lim’s well-reasoned critique of the movie.
Criterion Blu-rays contain a navigation tool called “Timeline” which allows the user to see his progress on the disc and know the title of the chapter he’s now in. It also allows the user to place or delete bookmarks by pushing colored buttons on your player’s remote.
3.5/5 (not an average)
Secret Sunshine presents as upsetting and unvarnished a view of a mind on the brink of collapse as has ever been shown on film, and the Blu-ray release features the film with its best possible presentation.