Song Kang-ho in Lee Chang-dong's "Secret Sunshine" Anamaria Marina and Laura Vasiliu in "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days": Aggressive Passivity By Adam Nayman

in 19th Palm Springs International Film Festival

by Adam Nayman

At last year’s Cannes Film Festival, Jeon Do-yean was awarded the best actress award for her role as a mother grieving over the death of her child in South Korean director (and former politician) Lee Chang-Dong’s Secret Sunshine (Milyang). Surely, this was a prize well-deserved: perhaps more than any film in recent memory (even more than the works of that wry sadist Lars von Trier) Secret Sunshine puts its heroine through the proverbial wringer. The character does not escape unscathed, but for all the complex and heightened emotions she’s asked to express (sometimes at the same time) Jeon’s performance remains utterly (miraculously?) unblemished by any trace of thespian excess, a malady that can infect even the finest and most fearless actors (i.e. the otherwise awesome Daniel Day-Lewis in the last ten minutes of There Will Be Blood).

As Secret Sunshine’s reputation grows (a North American theatrical release will hopefully be forthcoming) so too will the legend of Jeon’s performance. One hopes, though, that similar consideration will be accorded her co-star, Song Kang-ho. Song is by no means an obscure actor, having appeared in two very fine films by his countryman Bong Joon-ho: Memories of Murder (Salinui chueok, 2003), in which he played a naïve rural detective struggling to apprehend South Korea’s first publicly acknowledged serial killer; and also the wildly popular A+ B-movie The Host (Gwoemul, 2006), which pitted his dimly affable Seoul snack-bar employee against a giant bipedal mutant trout.

In Secret Sunshine, Song plays Kim Jong-chan, a lifelong resident of the titular small town — Miryang — that Jeon’s Shin-ae (tragically) chooses for her splintered family’s relocation. As the film opens, he’s offering her and her young son a ride into town in the wake of their car trouble. Learning that Shin-ae’s husband (who was from Miryang) is deceased, he attempts to insinuate himself into her life, spouting advice — much of it unsolicited — and offering to help her integrate into the community in any way possible. His affections are not exactly reciprocated, but as Shin-ae is entirely alone (save for her son, whom Kim makes a calculated show of doting on), she’s unable to really fend him off.

Because Secret Sunshine is so patient in revealing its shape and central concerns, it’s difficult to get a read on Kim’s character — or Song’s performance. In North American parlance, Kim is a geek, a kind of overgrown adolescent (his apartment is a disaster area) who dresses shabbily, eats sloppily and delights in making sexual innuendos with his friends. He’s also one of those people who don’t possess any sort of filter between their brains and their mouths. His conversation, which is accelerated and endless, is peppered with the sort of synapse-quick non-sequiturs that one would be better to hold in — in addition to the very real problems of securing employment and settling her son at a new school, Shin-ae is subjected to a stranger’s random neural firings.

Certainly, Song, who demonstrated phenomenal comic timing (and real physical gifts) in his mock-heroic roles for Bong, is funny in the part, but there’s more to it than that. For all of his bluster, Kim is something of a blank, and his parasitic attachment to Shin-ae runs deeper than a mere crush. He seems content to function as an (essentially atrophied) appendage. This cheerful fixation could be the stuff of an edgy romantic comedy (most romance in South Korean cinema being edgy) but then Secret Sunshine turns — boy, does it turn. Suddenly Shin-ae is not merely a harried single mother with a slightly demented suitor but a shattered woman coping with the disappearance — and then the dreadful post-mortem discovery — of her beloved, life-sustaining son. Her ensuing psychic collapse happens in stages, and once again, Kim is by her side, even accompanying her to a Christian prayer meeting (this after Shin-ae had emphatically rejected a church member’s first invitation to join the congregation) and then supporting her in her abrupt and utter supplication to the religion.

And he is supplicant to her. Critic Mark Peranson describes this dynamic, and its integration into the film’s underlying (and intriguingly two-sided) spiritual themes: “Jeon’s eventual search for, let’s say it, God, may be in vain because her stalker/protector is always one step behind her on this very Earth”. Lee’s brilliant script (any praise for the actors must acknowledge the quality of their material) presents us with a disturbing postulation: that Kim, an obsequious cipher whose every intention is utterly transparent, could and maybe even should be Shin-ae’s savior, but the need — specific to her and also inarguably universal — to place personal tragedy in a cosmic context, to believe that pain afflicts us for a reason and that we are at the center of our own private universe, blinds her to the possibility.

At the same time, for all of its savage (and to my eyes, positively lucid) critiques of institutionalized religion — how its minions prey, hyena-like, on the weak and psychologically hobbled, how the repetition of mantras can anesthetize the ache of self-awareness, and how its dictates confer an unearned, unhealthy and unnatural sense of magnanimity on those who come to “see the light” (the secret sunshine?) — the film doesn’t deny the possibility that Jeon is a genuine Job figure. In which case, Kim is simply a nattering distraction. The ending, which finds them united in the midst of a mundane activity, doesn’t hint too strongly either way while honoring both readings. It’s possible to see it as a very happy ending from Kim’s point of view: the woman he loves (if “love” is the correct word) remains by his side, not necessarily more receptive to his advances (she’d made a desperate, drunken pass at him a few scenes earlier, which he’d honorably — if somewhat confusedly — rejected) but simply too drained to ward him off — bludgeoned, as it were, into a tenuous co-dependence.

Amusingly enough, and disturbingly, also, Kim retained membership at the church, telling Shin-ae’s brother that he finds the atmosphere comforting — an oblivious remark given Shin-ae’s violent, near-fatal extrication from the congregation, but also an unfailingly honest one that speaks to his odd condition: pathological deference. Secret Sunshine will endure as (again, pace Peranson and any number of other Cassavetes-savvy critics) as an awed glimpse at a woman on the verge — and then some distance beyond — a nervous breakdown, but its big, frightening emotions require a compelling counterpoint to ward off melodrama. This spot can be located in Song’s performance, an uncanny portrait not of passive-aggression, but rather a species with fewer cinematic precedents — call it aggressive passivity.

Laura Vasiliu, Anamaria Marinca

A different Cannes jury might have awarded Secret Sunshine the Palme d’or; as it turns out, the award went to Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (4 luni, 3 saptamani si 2 zile), a worthy film in the same hardscrabble realist vein as Cristi Puiu’s (superior) The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and the Dardenne brothers’ (far superior) The Child (L’enfant). If 432 ultimately stretches its skein of realism thin to the breaking point, the actresses playing its central characters — Laura Vasiliu as a university student attempting, with predictable difficulty to secure an abortion in the waning days of the Ceaucescu regime and Anamaria Marinca as the friend who devotedly does all of the heavy lifting (and undergoes her own not un-considerable violation in the process) — are unimpeachably fine.

The structure dictates that Marinca has more screen time: after the procedure has been performed in a dirty hotel room (by a quietly monstrous abortionist played, in probably the male supporting performance of the year, by Vlad Ivanov), her character is obliged to leave the scene to tie up some personal loose ends. Marinca evinces the anxiety of abandoning her friend beautifully (a long dinner scene where she sits silently, enduring the idiotic conversation of her boyfriend’s family while the phone in the hallway announces a possibly desperate entreaty that she cannot answer, is a master-class in subtle shifts of expression) but Vasiliu, who has not received any acting prizes (Marinca was honored in Stockholm) leaves an indelible impression. Propped up in the hotel bed, rendered prone and immobile by the doctor’s “work” and tight-lipped with self-pity, she’s a pitiable figure, but Vasiliu doesn’t simply elicit sympathy — she renders the character’s unattractive aspects (flightiness and the presumption that her more responsible friend will always make everything ok) as vividly as her vulnerability. And, completing the circle — the film is a paean to friendship even more than it is a “message” film or a critique of the Ceaucescu era — Marinca makes us believe that somehow, she will make it all ok, winning our admiration as she goes about the process of nearly losing everything.