Lee Chang-dong, 2007 | 2010
I appear to in the minority when it comes to critical appreciation of Lee Chang-dong. His first two films showed promise, and despite occasional excesses in Oasis (2002), Lee showed that he was adept at handling subtext. In fact, Oasis has a lot going for it, and Lee manages to embed the Christian allegory with such deft subtlety that I have yet to unearth a review that even acknowledges its existence. Sadly, SECRET SUNSHINE is an overwrought, overemphatic, conceptually leaden piece of work designed (in my view) as a vehicle for the award-hungry central performance of Jeon Do-yeon. His follow-up, Poetry, fares little better.
To champion Secret Sunshine (as some have) for steering clear of the manipulative, melodramatic and/or violent tropes that dominate much of Korean cinema ignores the fact that Lee’s film has little of the substance one finds in the work of his more sophisticated peers, notably Hong Sang-soo and Park Ki-yong. I also disagree that the film portrays (as one critic put it) a personal faith able to absorb debilitating grief. I would say that the film does the exact opposite. Faith (and even God Himself) ultimately fails the central character, Shin-ae. The culture of faith depicted in the film attracts timid people longing for spiritual shelter, affirmation, and security. The closing shot of the film, a slow pan across a messy backyard that comes to rest on a patch of wet earth, leaves us in little doubt that Shin-ae’s future (and ours for that matter) will inevitably lead to a blunt full-stop. It's a strong image on which to bring the film to a close, but it was an arduous journey getting there.
Speaking at a press conference after the release of POETRY, Lee betrayed the immodesty of his intentions when he said, “Poetry is more than a literary genre. It is what is invisible, what cannot be calculated in monetary value... Poetry is not a little flower. It is the world. It is life. No matter how ugly the outside is, there is always something very beautiful inside.” Such comments would be easier to digest if Lee’s emotionally pleading films weren’t so calculated and disingenuous. For me, they pander to the viewer, relying too much on exposition through dialogue and gratuitous appeals to the emotions, to the extent that it’s difficult (for me at least) to trust him as an artist.
It’s obvious that Yun Jung-lee is ‘playing' the central character of Mija. One is so aware of her technique (this is how I do ‘elderly vulnerability’) that even her hat and scarf are theatrically over-considered. But she’s not alone. Many of the performances are writ-large, reminiscent of gestural silent film acting where everything is directed to the back row. The depiction of so-called ‘normal unassuming everyday people’ is contrived and patronising, and the near-trademark inclusion of a character suffering a debilitating condition allows Kim Hira to portray Mr Kang (an aging stroke victim) with every inch of bathos at his disposal. To be fair, this appears to be Kim’s first role, so it would be just my luck to discover the guy wasn’t acting! Oops ...
Lee insists on telegraphing and emphasising almost every nuance, leaving little room for the viewer to negotiate their own way through the film. Consequently, there is little subtlety, but there are some nice moments, such as when Mija’s hat is lifted by a sudden gust of wind, nicely prefiguring an important later event, or when she recalls an early childhood memory of her older sister encouraging her to crawl towards her, or when raindrops spot the blank page she struggles to make a poetic mark on. But then Lee goes and pops Mija in the shower where she can ‘hide her tears’. Groan.
In the closing moments of Lee’s ironically titled film, something approaching real poetry emerges in the same way that Secret Sunshine closed on a genuinely sombre, fleetingly contemplative note. I won’t spoil it for you by revealing what it is, but I will close by saying that despite my negative opinion of these two films, I recognise that Lee Chang-dong is an undeniable talent, and understand why audiences (and critics) are happy with the films he creates, but I sense that there might be a tougher and more substantial side to Lee that has yet to be revealed.
Originally published in The Lumiere Reader