Director Lee Chang-dong

Lee’s first film, Green Fish (1996), incorporates family melodrama into a realistic crime film.

Lee’s first major success, Peppermint Candy (1999) continues his interest in studying human emotion within a distanced style.

Oasis (2002): another Lee melodrama without conventional spectacle.


The opening shot of Secret Sunshine ...

... is revealed to be a point-of-view from the young son Jun

A long take two-shot of mother and son on the road to Milyang shows them enjoying the natural environment.

The opening credits indicate their long road trip from Seoul to the margins of the Korean nation.

Following the credits, Shin-ae is shot from behind as she enters the provincial town.

The camera holds back to frame Shin-ae and Jun in two-shot.


In a shot-reverse shot sequence between a shop owner and Shin-ae ...

... Shin-ae presumptively suggests to the owner that she make decorative changes.


“It’s better not to lie, but it’s hard to stimulate the audience otherwise”: realism and melodrama in Lee Chang-Dong’s Secret Sunshine

by Marc Raymond

The terms melodrama and realism are traditionally considered antithetical. The vernacular meaning of melodrama can be summarized by its Oxford American Dictionary definition:

“a sensational dramatic piece with exaggerated characters and exciting events intended to appeal to the emotions.”

The negative connotations still associated with the term melodrama are due to these anti-realistic elements of sensation, exaggeration, excitement, and emotion. This dichotomy makes the films of South Korean writer-director Lee Chang-dong of particular interest. Lee has been acclaimed as one of the most realistic filmmakers of the New Korean Cinema even though he consistently uses melodramatic narrative forms. As film critic Kim Young-jin argues, Lee’s films have a “conventional melodramatic structure, but tend(ing) towards realism in style.”[1] [open endnotes in new window] Lee’s fourth and most recent film, Milyang (Secret Sunshine) (2007) provides a rare contemporary example of a popular film (at least within its national context) that also manages to be of aesthetic and social distinction. This essay will offer a detailed formal analysis of Secret Sunshine in order to explore how melodrama and realism can interact to create and interrogate meaning in popular film form.

To understand Lee Chang-dong and his cinematic style, it is useful to first examine his artistic background. Importantly, Lee began his career as a novelist. Born in 1954, he did not come to the world of cinema until 1992, when he began working with Korean New Wave director Park Kwang-su. After revising the script of To the Starry Island (Park Kwang-su, 1993), Lee wrote the screenplay for A Single Spark (Park Kwang-su, 1995), and the next year he made his directing debut with Green Fish (1996), a gangster film/ family melodrama. His next film, Peppermint Candy (1999), opened the prestigious Pusan International Film Festival and made Lee known internationally. It is recognized for its unusual narrative structure, moving backwards in time to reveal the circumstances that led to its lead character’s suicide. This critical success continued with Oasis (2002), a romantic melodrama centering on the doomed relationship between an ex-convict and a woman with cerebral palsy. After spending time as the Minister of Culture and Tourism under President Roh Moo-hyun, Lee returned to filmmaking with Secret Sunshine, which earned a prize for actress Jeon Do-yeon at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival. This short sketch gives an indication of the unusual trajectory of Lee’s career. Kim Young-jin describes Lee as the type of director he wants to challenge, being touched by Lee’s films without being able to figure out why.[2] This is because Lee is a difficult filmmaker to categorize, being both “conventional but avant-garde at the same time.”[3] This difficulty can be explained through what Kim labels as the contradiction between Lee’s style and content:

“He has created an exquisite paradoxical aesthetic. Although he utilizes the convention of melodrama, he doesn’t allow the viewer to experience the conventional spectacle, which makes the experience more painful. He offers to hold the viewer’s hand, but doesn’t want them to cry easily over his films.”[4]

In regard to this liminal status between melodrama and realism, Secret Sunshine is the most representative of Lee’s films to date.

Given his success as a novelist, it is worth exploring why Lee decided to become a film director. According to Lee, a major factor was a crisis in faith that he encountered over the utility of his artistic work. This skepticism came from from that fact that Lee felt himself at a distance from the social and political environment in which he worked. First, in the 1980s, his liberal humanitarianism was at odds with the dialectical materialism of the intelligentsia, who had become radicalized after battles with a protracted dictatorship. Then, in the 1990s, the socialist ideology collapsed and the Korean youth moved away from politics altogether. Lee found himself also disillusioned with this new society. But, at the same time, this signaled a move towards a new center of Korean mass culture, a kind of postmodernism:

“In the late 80s, postmodernism stood at the core of change in Korean society, and the cinema was part of this change. During the 88 Olympics in Seoul, video players were widely distributed throughout Korea, enabling families to watch movies at home. Film moved to the center of popular culture, whereas text had been at the center of modern times.”[5]

Changing to the medium of film allowed Lee the chance to explore a new artistic form that was not as lacking in social utility as he perceived literature to be. And he found a fresh aesthetic using a new medium. As Lee has stated:

“I’m very conscious of the film medium itself. I came to film after writing novels. I’m not used to looking at the world through film. Because I was working in another medium and then came to use film as a tool, I constantly ask myself what film is.”[6]

As will become clear, Lee’s background as a novelist and his resultant self-consciousness towards cinema serve to distinguish his movies from his contemporaries both in Korea and the rest of current world cinema.

The fact that Lee was attracted to cinema because of its social utility explains his attraction to genre as a way of securing an audience within Korea for his work. Although Lee entered the film world by collaborating with director Park Kwang-su, his own work differs from his Korean contemporaries such as Park, Jang Sun-Woo, and Lee Myeong-Se. Coming to cinema after the first Korean New Wave (which begins in 1988 with Park’s Chilsu and Mansu), Lee began with more overtly political films characteristic of this generation. But his most overtly political drama, Peppermint Candy, with its unique narrative structure and use of melodrama, appealed to both international art cinema and Korean mainstream audiences. With Oasis and now Secret Sunshine, Lee has moved further towards mainstream visibility. In contrast, Park Kwang-su has not released a film commercially since his historical drama The Uprising (1999), with the exception of his contribution to the omnibus film If You Were Me (2003). Jang Sun-Woo has been inactive since the commercial flop The Resurrection of the Little Match Girl (2002). Even Lee Myeong-Se, who has remained the most active of the early New Wave directors, has not had a great deal of commercial success and no exposure abroad. His recent M (2007) did disappointing box office in Korea.[7] Likewise, the newer auteurs of the second Korean New Wave (the so-called 386 generation), Kim Ki-Duk and Hong Sang-soo, have never had popularity within Korea. The only auteur with real commercial success and art cinema accolades would be Park Chan-wook, but Park works in the spectacle-filled action genre and employs a style devoid of any realism. When he moved away from this in his film, I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK (2006), the results were less successful.[8] Lee’s uniqueness is combining a style praised for its verisimilitude with a genre-based approach that appeals to domestic viewers.

In an interview with Kim Young-jin conducted shortly before the release of Secret Sunshine, Lee repeatedly asserted that his new film is “just ordinary and normal. There is nothing more to it.” He insisted that there are not any “stylized cinematic devices. I have just plain looking shots.”[9] The entire structure and approach of the film was organized around this idea:

“I went for normality in this film. And I think the nature of the film should be normal. I regret I couldn’t find a way to make things even simpler.” [10]

Lee elaborates on this last point about his disappointment with the finished form. He acknowledges that Secret Sunshine is not an entirely normal and ordinary film but believes this was because of his failure as a director. Any kind of stylization seems to him a mistake caused by his shortcomings as an artist:

“We decided on one thing, which is ‘No long takes for this movie.’ Instead, we tried to shoot the same shot from different angles, so we could use them in editing. But then again, that made things way too complicated. So sometimes we just went for long takes again.”[11]

Thinking that this may be a key to some formal pattern, Kim then asks whether the shots get longer as the film progresses. Lee responds by stating that if the shots did get longer, it was purely accidental, reiterating that the film is really “normal.” This type of directorial self-deprecation and denial of meaning is common. Historically, there are many cases of directors who do not discuss their work in an aesthetically self-conscious way, most notably classical filmmakers such as John Ford.[12] Artists are notoriously reticent about discussing their work, and it is tempting to dismiss these comments as just another example. When the viewer confronts Secret Sunshine, Lee’s remarks become even more incomprehensible, since it is anything but a conventional film. Nevertheless, I believe that Lee’s description contains a kernel of truth. The film contains a form that cannot be easily classified within the contemporary cinematic culture because of its very normality.

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