Secret Sunshine (2007) directed by Lee Chang Dong is my favorite Korean film ever made. I have never experienced anything quite like this film. The film is uncomfortable and it revels in that aspect. It manages to present one of the most complex of human emotions in a way that is true to how it actually is in real life. Through this piece I will try to dissect the film along with its themes and symbolism in order to fully understand the hidden meaning behind this film. Without further ado this is the film analysis of Secret Sunshine. Obvious spoiler warning.
If there is one thing I learned from taking three film courses in university. Is that most of the time, if the director is smart and passionate, the opening scene of a film will introduce the theme of the film to the audience. With Secret Sunshine I also believe that this is the case. Although some may feel like it is a stretch I do believe the first scene played a big role in allowing the audience to understand what is coming next. So what can we infer from the first scene? The film starts off with Shin-ae and her son stuck in a highway as her car is broken down. She tries to get help and waits until someone calls someone for her. To some this may not mean anything. However to me it means the world. The film is showing us the theme of the film without the audience even realizing it. So we can ask ourselves what situation is Shin-ae in at the beginning of the film? We see that she is lost, and her car is broken down. If you think about it, that is exactly what the whole film is about. As the film goes on we see Shin-ae being lost and broken and trying to find someone to help her. Just as the initial scene shows, Mr. Kim helps her both physically with her car and mentally throughout the film. This should hopefully give you some perspective as to how the first scene can give some insight into what is to come throughout the film.
Grief is such a key theme in this film. The reason being is that it is the theme that drives the entire movie and main character. However, Secret Sunshine is able to show grief in its truest forms. Many films, even good ones show grief in a very linear passion. You are grieving so you are sad. However, grief is not like that in real life, it is not linear as some films may show it to be. Secret Sunshine takes the concept of grief and shows us how it is the opposite of linear. Throughout the film we see Shin-ae going through various stages of grief. She shows us that humans don't react to a difficult situation just by being sad. We see for example when she first found out her son was kidnapped she was hysterical and couldn't think straight. After her son's death however she was silent. She did not even speak. Even at the funeral the grandmother was shouting at Shin-ae as to why she is not shedding a tear for her child. However we know that Shin-ae doesn't even have the luxury of shedding a tear and being sad. Because that is not how grief works. Humans don't know how they will react to certain situations, and that is how Shin-ae reacted to her son's death. After that we then see more changes, from utter despair, to hope, to revenge, to denial. All of these stages beautifully flow together. Although some may feel like the are disjointed or messy, that is the whole point of the film. Showing how unpredictable humans are is the only way to show how they deal with grief. This is why I believe this film is so important in the way it deals with the topic of grief. By showing the audience that losing someone doesn't always result in just sadness. It is a whirlwind of emotions that does not end until you are able to let go of it all. And this leads on to my third point of this analysis which is forgiveness.
Another very important theme in Secret Sunshine is forgiveness, and it is the main theme that counteracts grief. We see that throughout the film, Lee Chang Dong specifically highlights several instances and events where Shin-ae is able to forgive in order to let go. What we see however is something else. Shin-ae time and time again refuses to forgive those who have made her suffer. It is as if she does not want to let go, and as if she wants those who have made her suffer (whether directly or indirectly) to suffer as well. A key point in the film which shows this off is the prison scene. After Shin-ae goes through a drastic transformation at the hand of her church and newly found faith in god, she decides to visit the prison and confront her son's killer. She claims that she wants to forgive him and to show him the way of god. Even Mr. Kim (who I will talk about later) asks why she cant forgive him without seeing him in person. She obviously does not explain her true reasoning. She claims that she wants to guide him to the light, however what she is actually doing is going there to gloat to him. She wants to go to the prison and to show him that she is doing better and she wants to see him miserable and suffering in jail while she is happy and content. Obviously that does not happen, Shin-ae is shocked to see that he is calm, healthy, and happy. He proclaims that he already found god and that god has forgiven him for his sins. This leads Shin-ae into the final downward spiral that ultimately ended her in the mental institute. She wanted to hold the power of forgiveness, she wanted to be the one who decides when he is able to be content with his life. This is due to the grief that she has suffered. As I explained, Shin-ae is trying to use this forgiveness to finally counteract the grief that she went through. Yet, she does not take that opportunity to forgive and forget. Not only with the killer, but also with the killers daughter, who in all actuality did not really have anything to do with her sons death. However we see Shin-ae again wanting people to suffer, and not able to give up that power of forgiveness and close the door on this chapter of her life. When Shin-ae sees the daughter being beaten by two guys she has an opportunity to stop it, yet she doesn't take it. Even at the end of the film, the final encounter that is supposed to make her forget and forgive. Immediately after leaving the mental institute she asks to go get a haircut. As she is cutting her hair she sees that the person cutting is the daughter of the killer. We as viewers, are prepared for this scene to be the final scene where Shin-ae finally forgives and lets go of her grief. Again, that does not happen. Although the daughter had nothing to do with the death of her son, she is still not able to forgive her. The reason being is that she wants to control her own fate and not let anyone else control it. This leads in to my next point as well.
Fate, Faith, and Religion
A key element of Secret Sunshine has a lot to do with fate, faith, and religion. These themes of the film to me is the most dangerous to dissect. The reason being is that I believe they can be interpreted in many ways based on your personal beliefs. However this is how I believe the film approached these themes. To me I believe this film tackled fate in a very interesting way. Here is how. A key point in the film was when Shin-ae went to get the life insurance check after her son passed. She had a panic attack and start to hyperventilate and break down. As she was at her weakest, she lifts up her head and she sees a church service that is currently happening. Although previously she was dismissive of religion she goes in and it ultimately leads to her short recovery. Here we see something very interesting. When Shin-ae was at her lowest, she was given a helping hand and god gave her a path to recovery and help. Shin-ae accepts this gift that is given to her, even though it was not her who chose this path, it was fate that decided. After she felt better and content, Shin-ae started to meddle with fate. She wanted to take fate into her own hands. She tried to show the killer that she was the one who got better, as if she did it on her own. By her trying to do that, god presented her with a challenge, of showing her that the killer is as content as her and he is happy with his life. Instead of accepting fate, she goes further into disobeying it and gets angry at god. This can be seen several times when she raises her head to the sky in anger. So we see a sort of irony, when she was at her worst, she gladly accepted fate when it was to her benefit. However, when something difficult is put in front of her she instantly rejects it and tries to blame god. This leads Shin-ae into a rebellious phase where she is constantly trying to disobey fate and try to "get back" at god. We see she tries to coerce the pharmacist (who is a religious man) into having sex with her. As she is happy she is inflicting her revenge and looking up to god her plan fails. Time and time again she tries and fails. Even when she gets her final chance to forgive the daughter of the killer, she gets angry at god again. Throughout all these opportunities, she is able to just accept her fate whether it be good or bad. Yet she is still continues to disobey and rebel. Which ultimately leads to the ending of the film, which I feel like ties all of these themes perfectly.
The final scene in my opinion is such a great representation of all the themes discussed coming together to close out the story. I remember the first time I saw this film, my biggest criticism was with the ending and how unsatisfying it was. However after watching the film 3 times, I realized that to me personally the ending is perfect for what the film was trying to convey. The final scene starts with Shin-ae running away from the barber shop with half her hair cut. She goes to her home and decides to cut it herself. Mr. Kim then goes to hold the mirror as she cuts her hair. Finally we get a shot of her hair being blown away into the muddy side of the house. To some, including myself first time I watched, this scene makes no sense as it does not close out the story to the film. However if you look deeper into the symbolism and hidden meanings you will be able to interpret a proper ending to the film. What we see here is that again Shin-ae in the final moment of forgiveness has opted to reject it. She is not willing to forgive and opts to take fate, once again, into her own hands, and "mess" with gods will. She goes and tries to cut her own hair. This action signifies taking fate into her own hand. Which we know is not something she ought to do. As she is cutting, the camera pans to the hair blowing away to the mud. This to me signifies that since she is taking her fate into her own hands, she will ultimately go back to her pain, which here is signified by the dirty floor which the shot is focusing on. Thus by having this interpretation, we can see that the ending is giving us closure. It is not a positive closure, but it is closure nonetheless. It is showing us Shin-ae's final decision of rebelliousness and what that will ultimately entail. This is just my personal interpretation of the themes of the film and for me it makes sense and flows naturally together. If you have any different interpretation of the film, leave it in the comments below so that we can discuss. Now I will talk a bit about some small points that I didn't get a chance to address.
I want to talk a bit about the character of Mr. Kim, since I feel like he plays a key role for both the film and the audience. To me, Mr. Kim represents the viewer. He is the person who we can gravitate towards. Although Shin-ae is the main character of the film, it is difficult for us to connect with her because it is really hard to connect with something so extreme. So Mr. Kim is there in order to allow the viewers to connect with one of the characters. This is why we see Mr. Kim doing certain things that we as viewers may also do if we were in the film as well. When asking Shin-ae why she has to go to the prison, we as viewers are also confused and need to know why she is doing this. Furthermore, he is always there for Shin-ae, even though she sometimes may not seem worth it to other people, to him and to the viewers who have invested time with her, she matters. This is just a short explanation of why I think Mr. Kim plays a key role in the film.
Finally I want to talk about the words "Secret Sunshine" and what I feel like they represent. We know that the meaning of the word Miryang (the name of the village in Korean) means Secret Sunshine. However, I feel like there is much more than just the name of the village. I feel like the words Secret Sunshine represents the people of the village. Throughout the film we are able to find a bit of sunshine in each character. However, the sunshine of each character is hidden or "secret" you need to look for it in order to find it. This is just what I felt, and it might be overreaching however it makes sense to me.
To conclude, I just wanted to showcase how Secret Sunshine may seem like a very slow film with not a lot going on, yet there is much more than meets the eye. I believe Lee Chang Dong was able to cleverly place all of these concepts and themes so that we as viewers can interpret his work in a way that makes sense to us and how we view the film and characters. If you are interested in Korean Cinema and feel like you can handle a slow, and uncomfortable film then do give this film a try. It was the best film I saw last year and still continues to amaze me everytime I rewatch it.