By Nathanael Griffis
I’d seen a lot about Secret Sunshine, and the plot seemed simple enough. A mother and her son move back to her deceased husband’s home town of Seoul. Everything is going fine until her son is kidnapped. From the synopsis it seemed like a typical Korean crime thriller that was right up my alley. Instead this film completely surprised me, and became an in-depth and honest analysis of man’s relationship to God. This film tackled some of the hardest spiritual and philosophical questions directly without pulling any punches or feeling preachy.
The previous synopsis does not adequately describe the experience this film is. Do-yeon Jeon plays the grieving mother Shin-ae trying to raise her child in a new town. Kang-ho Song joins as the single desperate man Jong Chan who is willing to do anything to make Shin-ae love him. The film tackles difficult questions with respect and never shies away from the reality of the situation.
I’m speaking in broad terms because I’m trying to avoid spoilers, but I’ll do what I can to relate to you the experience at least. This films addresses the fact that a relationship with God is a choice and a solution to grief. It doesn’t show conversion though as an immediate or easy decision. Shin-ae struggles with the decision mocking Christianity as useless, yet somehow is drawn to it. She initially finds peace, genuine peace, after accepting Christ, but that is not enough. A life with God does not simply end all suffering and hardship. Shin-ae begins to wrestle with God over questions like, why does God allow bad things to happen, why is he forgiving of all sins, and why does he still draw us in despite our rejection of him?
What I appreciate most is that it doesn’t water anything down. The characters are definitely flawed: Jong Chan never truly converts, and spends his entire time pretending just so he can get close to Shin-ae, yet he at times makes the better moral decision. Director Chang-dong Lee here challenges the idea that morality is only capable in Christianity, an idea that often, and to my great annoyance, is a the focus of most Christian filmmaking. A person is very capable of making a moral decision without being a Christian. God doesn’t make us moral; he desires for us to choose to be that way. A person doesn’t have to know him to make that choice.
Shin-ae at one point begins to wrestle with God, actively seeking to destroy him and those who love him. She tempts a church leader toward adultery, attempts to attack people in a prayer meeting, and disrupts a revival conference by playing secular music over an altar call. It might seem boring, but the way it is handled is fascinating. It all has a strong sense of unabashed honesty. The world and Christians are not perfect; we make bad decisions. Frequently ones that have lasting damage.
It’s foolish, pretentious, and dishonest to present an image of Christians as perfect citizens. Christians struggle with the same decisions as anyone, and they don’t always find peace. Yes, sometimes they do, and the movie shows this. It doesn’t disparage God. I believe it shows Christianity, a relationship with Christ, and acceptance of forgiveness as the solution to grief. The church community she attacks and damages is understanding and forgiving. It just presents these issues without the usual rose-colored glasses of Christian filmmaking.
On the technical side, the acting is stupendous. The film never ceases to surprise, and the range of emotion that is asked of Do-yeon Jeon is staggering, but she delivers. Kang-ho Song never fails to impress, and I look forward to him hopefully gaining more exposure to American audiences with Snowpiercer later this year. The direction by Chang-dong Lee shows a rare balance of respect for material blending with excellent filmmaking.
This is not a film I would recommend to anyone. If metaphysical questions about our relationship with God don’t interest you then you’ll probably find this film boring. If you want to see a film that upholds Christians as model citizens and moral action as the ultimate goal of Christianity then this film will probably offend you. If you, like myself, had been striving to find that one film that wasn’t afraid to tackle issues honestly and not disparage God or Christians, but show them in the light of honest humanity, then this film will not disappoint.
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