South Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-dong is a great talent and not exactly an unknown here. (The above title refers to his former stint as his country's minister of culture.) Even so, his work (Peppermint Candy, Oasis) underlines the particular problems artistically significant foreign-language filmmakers face in trying to have their work shown here outside the festival or museum circuit.
His superb Secret Sunshine opened here, almost clandestinely, last December, some three and a half years after its Cannes 2007 world premiere.
Fortunately, his profoundly beautiful Poetry, one of my favorite films from last year’s mostly discredited Cannes competition, has already opened in New York and expands this week to Chicago’s essential Music Box Theatre Friday. (Knock on wood, it also seems to holding its own commercially.)
As much as I’m personally bothered by the near invisibility Secret Sunshine, one positive development is the clearer sense of the two films as corollary pieces. An obvious connecting thread is the director’s astonishing work with actresses. In Secret Sunshine, the beautiful and lithe Jeon Do-yeon gives a startling and vivid performance as a woman seeking her own brand of salvation after an unfathomable personal tragedy.
As she also showed ecstatically in Im Sang-soo’s remake of The Housemaid, she has a revealing and suggestive face that breaks sorrowfully and ambiguously between comedy and tragedy. In Poetry the graceful, beautifully moving lead performance by the great Yun Jung-hee as an elderly woman seeking her own brand of intellectual and personal rejuvenation, transforms the material into high art. (This was her first starring film role after a sixteen-year absence from movies.)
Both films are also linked by their unpardonable sense of loss and violation. The two movies also demonstrate with acuity and (barely suppressed anger) how easily, in the go-go economic boom of the country, women remain fairly marginalized, even dispossessed, by larger cultural mechanisms and the still male dominated social hierarchies.
In Secret Sunshine, Jeon plays Lee shin-ae, a woman in her late thirties introduced driving into the parochial southern town of Miryang with her playful and restless young son, Jun (Seon Jeong-yeob). Still mourning her late husband who died from injuries sustained in a car accident, she has repatriated to his hometown to begin life anew.
A former classically trained pianist who gave up her career to raise a family, Lee opens a storefront piano school for teaching children. She incurs all sorts of nasty rumors and almost hateful speculation about her potential business transactions. Even worse she draws the suspicion of a well-connected local pharmacist after she rebuffs his religious cajoling.
Reconnecting with her brother Min-gi (Kim Yeon-jae), Lee also acquires a persistent male admirer in the comic form of Kim (Song Gang-ho), an auto mechanic. Her elaborate effort to assimilate into her new life is demolished when Jun is kidnapped and held for ransom. Her desperate efforts to secure the boy’s freedom ends tragically with the discovery of his corpse in a local riverbed.
The boy’s death occasions the first of several radical and powerful conversions Lee undergoes. Reduced to a catatonic state by her loss, she reluctantly agrees to attend a Christian revival meeting. At the service, she uncoils a shrieking and violently unsettling wail of emotions. The filmmaker Lee privileges the emotional turmoil of the moment, and never sentimentalizes pain. He makes palpable the boy’s absence, accentuated and made even more disturbing by his mother’s hallucinations that every boy she encounters on the street is her resurrected son.
The movie’s political and social critique emerge through Lee’s immersion in the local Christian movement. Imagining herself “born again,” she has a tense and charged prison encounter with her son’s killer (Jo Yeong-jin) that issues another radical emotional transformation. She suddenly denounces the principles and ideas of the Christian movement for what she sees as its excessive piety, repression and hypocrisy. In one of the most electric scenes in the film, she invades an outdoor revival meeting and tampers with the public address system by inserting a CD that drowns out the speaker.
Lee’s disavowal of the religious order signals another dark reversal of fortune as her hold on reality becomes more tenuous and she commits acts of petty larceny and loses grasp of any tangible emotional balance as her life spirals downward into mask of torment and confusion.
These are private, sharp moments given a tremendous clarity and emotional force through Jeon's exquisitely detailed and vocally shaded work. Physically she is fine-boned. She also has an off-hand comic style, evident in the nervous way she says “Sex,” during a conversation with her male admirer. She allows a complex emotional connection to the accumulation of tense, horrifying conditions.
Jeon's guilt and breakdown takes on many forms, such as physically the way she refuses a haircut or emotionally in her stunted interaction with Song. Handsomely photographed in widescreen by Jo Yong-gyu, Lee frequently isolates Jeon in shallow space against hard and unforgiving objects that underscores her eroding position. It is furthermore a sharp, abject indication of her unspeakable pain.
The shooting style is unadorned, relaxed and colorful that moves freely and open from light to dark, suggesting life as a constantly mobile state where happiness and ecstasy share constant space with disruption and loss.
The filmmaker’s significant achievement, abetted by his actress, is showing all manner of consequence on a woman who is desperate to achieve grace. The work is not mystical, rooted instead in a very firm belief that her suffering is a natural outgrowth of her deliverance. In that regard, it plays like a South Korean Breaking the Waves, touching on all manner of how violence contributes to breakdown and madness.
The ambiguous ending is entirely deserved, part of a larger work that finds a great director refining his craft and a wonderful and brilliant actress providing the purest, most direct means of mediating tragedy and discontent.
Poetry is a more serene and poetic rumination about memory and faith, but it feels right in every detail. The movie approaches a subject hard to dramatize, the interior consciousness of an older woman confronted by a horrible personal shame, with a lucid grace and tender maturity.
From the grave and somber note that opens the movie, seeing the body of a young girl floating down the Han River as a group of young boys play on the banks of the shore, Poetry marks a particularly dark kind of incursion.
Lee echoes and links his previous film through the fluid way he entwines the two separate stories of Poetry. The opening imagery of loss and violation is connected through the personal disruption caught in the rueful daily activities of Mija (Yun), a 66-year-old woman who lives with her grandson (Lee David). She is introduced at the doctor’s office, complaining about pain in her arm that after the doctor’s deeper inquiries leads to her admission of a possibly even graver illness. Memory failure is evident, she says, like forgetting “verbs and nouns.”
At the hospital, Mija sees the mother of the girl whose body was found in the water. Her death has been ruled a suicide. Mija also learns the girl was a classmate of her grandson, though the boy claims he did not know here very well.Mija lives a quiet, tidy, even somewhat unremarkable life. Her daughter, the boy’s mother, lives in Seoul. She gets by, barely, on a government pension and working a couple days a week as a private nurse and maid to Kang (Kim Hira), a cantankerous older man whose own family is fairly dismissive even patronizing, of her.
By the standards of her generation, of her class, even the closed off culture that fostered her, Mija is something of a wild card who obviously possess an artist’s spirit and generosity. Her life is fundamentally altered one day when she discovers a poetry class being taught by a prominent local poet at the cultural center.
Despite the movie’s serious tone, Lee uses humor judiciously, plainly, as a way to humanize Mija, the free spirit who makes a startling entrance at her new class when she casually interrupts her teacher when the topic turns to pencil sharpeners.
Mija‘s task is to complete her own poem during the month-long course. Encouraged by the instructor’s exploration of what poetry constitutes at a time the form appears dead or holding very little connection to daily life, Mija is now alight in her own private world as she ties to find new and innovative ways to see, visualize and appreciate the world around her. She even starts to attend local poetry readings in an effort to better understand the form and style.
Her emerging sensibility and desire to open up her world artistically and intellectually is starkly thrown to the side when she is notified of a horrible personal connection to the girl who killed herself. The young woman maintained a private diary and revealed that Mija’s grandson and his five friends sexually assaulted the girl repeatedly. The fathers of the other boys involved convene a meeting and come up with a plan to provide financial assistance to the girl’s mother, a widowed farmer, basically buying her off to forestall any criminal investigation against them.
Mija’s share, roughly equivalent to $4,200, is the latest financial burden she must cope with at a time she anxiously awaits her own medical results. Her grandson’s complicity, matched by her profound sense of disappointment and her own failure and guilt, is so profound Mija finds herself unable to directly confront her grandson.
Mija even tries in her own way to help atone for the boy’s grave mistake. In one of the movie’s most devastating scenes, she attends a private church service for the girl and the grief and sorrow she feels is absolutely heartbreaking.Lee is not a sensationalist. He locates feeling, expression and tenderness in what is left unsaid or unspoken, like an observant and overwhelmingly profound shot of three of the late girl’s female classmates dressed in their stiff school uniforms that powerfully conveys the sorrow and sense of violation felt by all young women.
As she undergoes her own unsentimental education and begins to move beyond her immediate surroundings or previously restricted life, Mija begins to draw on that deepening intelligence and confidence to remake the world according to her own needs. As such she finds the strength to stave off the bullying Kang.
In the film’s most haunting scene, Mija is persuaded by the other fathers of the boys’ circle to appeal directly to the mother of the victim. In a superbly staged act of indirection and subtlety, the two women warily face one another and tacitly acknowledge the other’s pain and guilt.
Lee’s script is modulated, surprising, even daring. The story leaps out in subtle and profound ways and uses the framework of Mija’s newfound inquisitive gaze to consider the world. By opening up her world, Mija is irrevocably undone by what she experiences. Lee achieves some powerful visual effects that utilize found objects, reflections, and landscapes that he weaves into his own fresco.
Most devastating, Lee draws on water imagery to achieve a heartbreaking circular structure that elliptically and poetically gives life and meaning not only to her own state of grace but a meaningful and overwhelming sorrow at the life never given the chance to blossom or flourish.
Time has not dulled or lessened the artistic or emotional impact of Secret Sunshine. Art delayed often means art denied or unfairly obscured. Poetry extends and deepens the art. Lee Chang-dong surpasses his reach, and makes pure and resonant his own brand of art.