Secret Sunshine (2007)

Secret Sunshine opens with a shot of the sky. A few clouds drift by, but otherwise, the bright blue background dominates. The film closes with a shot of a dirt patch. Garbage circles the perimeter, but otherwise, the dark brown background dominates.

It wouldn’t be incorrect to infer a downward movement in the film from this description. But just how is it downward? Lee Chang-dong’s 2007 film (not in general release in the U.S. until 2010) is interested primarily in what makes human beings tick. What gives our lives purpose or meaning? The film uses as its subject a young, recently widowed mother named Shin-ae who experiences even further tragedy as the story progresses.

Burdened by her suffering, she turns to an Evangelical church for answers. Thoughtful film blogger Darren Hughes called the film “the truest depiction of evangelical Christianity I’ve seen on film,”[1] a description not far from my own estimation. Not only does the film treat its religious characters and their services with respect, it manages to engender a great deal of sympathy for an Evangelical perspective. Now, it’s best to know as little as possible going in, so if you’ve not yet seen the film, let me ask you to stop here, see the film, and then finish the piece. And comment, of course.

The sympathy for the Christian characters comes through Lee’s willingness to film them in their element. He gets the details right—both in their language and their practice. The film would never work narratively if Lee had not filmed them in the best possible light. The church needs to be a compelling safe harbor for Shin-ae, providing her some answer and sense of comfort as she deals with the tragedies of her life.

However, unsurprisingly, showing Evangelicals in a true light is a double-edged sword. For while the church offers Shine-ae some measure of relief, their approach is decidedly “heavenly” rather than “earthly.” The people offer her a sense of belonging to something greater than herself, yet their responses to her suffering seem designed to subdue it rather than engage it. When Shin-ae presses one church member over why God would allow such suffering to occur in her life, the Christian attributes it all to God’s will. Simple answers like this provide initial comfort, but on further reflection seem empty and void of any real salve for the wound. So while the Evangelicals provide an initial dose of hope for Shin-ae, they eventually prove unable to truly engage with her where she is.

That said, Lee doesn’t take the easy road here. These Christians are, in most cases, good people. Even one of them who fails late in the film is given some measure of compassion as his guilt is palpable. But Shin-ae’s journey from an isolated widow at the film’s opening takes her downward, ironically past those who claim the Incarnation, to a place of raw humility and brokenness bordering on insanity. Her anger at God in the film’s final third is unmistakable, and yet, at the film’s conclusion, a spark of something good and true and beautiful still remains in her life.

The downward movement, then, takes the lead character from heaven to earth, from the abstract to the concrete, and from isolation to connection. In other words, Secret Sunshine shows us something of what it means to be human. Maybe it’s something just a little lower than we tend to think.

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