Secret Sunshine

In Burning and this one I get a greater sense of the transitory than I've gotten from any other feature films. I've seen the mobile camera used to prolong continuity, to show internal contrast and to do a thousand other things--each, it goes without saying, unique to the specific work in which it's employed. But with a widescreen aspect ratio, handheld rigs and busy, casually dynamic compositions, Lee and his people create a sense of flux that--for me, anyway--almost totally undermines the notion of the single image, the single moment. That's a hell of a thing to do, and they do it modestly.

The use of the handheld camera for destabilizing effect is, by now, a cliche, and Hollywood has amped it up to the point of parody in so many of its "action" movies. What I see in these two films is the technique dialed down to simmer-level. Here, Shin-ae's absent wanderings, her awkward exchanges, her episodes of bawling and so much more are captured with a subtly wavering camera, and almost every frame comes with detail that offsets the dramatic emphasis. The heroine faces off with an imprisoned enemy; we hear him speak from the bottom of his heart; the camera shakes the slightest bit; and the full-face shots of the prisoner, which are among the most simple and focused in the movie, are polluted by inches of a jail-guard's uniform cap. It's a banal, peripheral detail, and in the work of many filmmakers it would look like sloppiness. But there are elements like that in almost every shot of the film. They're rarely obtrusive; at first, you might write them off as incidental. But as the movie unwinds, their precision starts to register. This is a film about moving through the agony of grief--about the intolerable slowly becoming tolerable--and we see the messiness of the process figured in almost every frame.

Cinema is a medium of surfaces divided by cuts; it's very hard for a filmmaker to register psychological change in terms of gradation. Secret Sunshine has its share of major turning points, but they seem to bob up instead of following from one another, and that effect couldn't be achieved without the heavily disguised visual poise.

Lee is like an emotive Otto Preminger--the two directors share an interest in ambiguity, and they use visual detail for mystery as much as clarification. But Preminger is straightforward about his fussiness, his calibrations, his complications and obfuscations. Lee disguises them and, at times, comes close to overwhelming them with sheer horror. Shin-ae's agony builds, subsides and then rears its head again; the phases are marked by story points, but each one lasts long enough to convey a sense of pain moving its slow course towards climax or recession.

Bottom line: of all the movies about grief that I've seen, Secret Sunshine sits at the top. It shares its perch with one other work: Anne Claire Poirier's doc Tu as crié Let me go. In that film, the director speaks in voiceover about attending the trial of her daughter's killer:

"Each time I heard your name, a knife turned in my womb, like a labour in reverse, making me pregnant with you forever.”

Like Poirier, the fictional Shin-ae has to bear a cross until she dies. In my experience, the worst thing about grief is the awful sense of suspension-- of waiting to get back to the world as it was before death fell into it. It never happens; the best you can hope for is for the cross to become lighter with time. Lee and his team balance the permanence of bereavement with the change that can make it bearable, and they give us hints of that change in every tiny moment. It's almost a form of mercy.