In a conversation with pharmacist, Shin-ae looks back for Jun

Play becomes foreshadowing: Shin-ae with Jun hiding behind her.

Shin-ae and her brother argue about her decision to move from Seoul.

A long take shows Shin-ae (deceptively, as it turns out) looking at potential property.

A few shots give early forewarning of the teacherís potential threat.

Shin-ae listens in at hairdresserís, as the shop owner speaks negatively about her in the background.

Shin-ae visits her son's classroom and gives an (over?)joyous reaction to Junís speech.

At a lunch meeting of parents and teacher, as Shin-ae discusses her buying property.

At the restaurant, there is an awkward farewell between the teacher and Shin-ae.

Shin-ae unsuccessfully plays the piano in front of a small group, indicating her limited musical ability.

Shin-ae dances at a noraebang (singing room) with fellow parents on night of Junís kidnapping.

Shin-ae tries to contact Jun by phone before returning home.

The previous scene parallels a long take of the kidnapperís first phone call.

Shin-ae approaches Mr. Kimís ...

... thinking he may be involved with the kidnapping plot ...

... but then releasing she is incorrect.

Shin-ae nearly breaks down as she attempts to deliver the ransom money.

The second phone conversation is more distanced than the first. Here Shin-ae admits she doesnít have the money and had previously been lying.

Shin-ae confronts the teacherís daughter and guesses his involvement.

A shot through the windshield is a near repeat of the opening shot, this time from Shin-aeís point-of-view.

The police investigate. There's a two-minute long take as Shin-ae approaches ...

... and then sees Jun’s body.

The above shot sequence paralles the scene revealing the murder of Miyagi in Kenji Mizoguchiís Ugetsu (1953).

Junís grandmother hysterically grieves at the funeral and cremation service, while ...

... Shin-ae is distanced and shows little reaction. The grandmother, her former husband's mother, reviles her.

Outside, Shin-ae and Mr. Kim discuss her lack of emotion.


With the extremes of maximalist and minimalist approaches characterizing the increasingly competitive markets of popular and art cinema respectively, Secret Sunshine refuses to be easily confined and labeled.[13] [open endnotes in new window]The story elements are characteristic of a maternal melodrama of suffering and redemption. As the film opens, the lead character, Shin-ae, moves from Seoul to her husband’s hometown of Milyang (which means “secret sunshine” in Korean, as a character explains early in the film). The husband has recently died, leaving her to raise her young son, Jun, by herself. After the opening act in which Lee establishes the milieu of the town and its characters, a crisis occurs. Jun is kidnapped (as it turns out, by his teacher) because Shin-ae had given the false impression that she is wealthy, and when she cannot meet the demands, Jun is killed. After falling into a depression, Shin-ae turns to a Christian community to ease her suffering. This seems to give her solace, but only temporarily. She decides to go to the prison to forgive her son’s killer. When she meets him, she learns that he too has found God and is convinced that God has absolved him of his sins. This causes Shin-ae to rebel against religion, a downward spiral that leads to her self-mutilation. The story ends with Shin-ae being released from the hospital and encountering the teacher’s daughter at the hairdresser’s. Shin-ae leaves in the middle of the haircut and returns home to cut her own hair. There is nothing realistic about this narrative. It is full of heavy amounts of melodrama in which Shin-ae, to quote one reviewer, “suffers more than any one person should ever have to suffer in life.”[14]

In addition, the structure itself is very tight and controlled, as is typical of Lee’s approach. Lee has commented on the negative reactions he has received when he used this dramatic framework in previous films:

“Some audiences complain that my films are so tightly knit together and intentional that there is no place for them to escape. I admit this is true, but I don’t think it’s something I should avoid. If a film is to capture an audience, then no way of escape is a virtue. It has to continue on without losing its hold on the audience. I want my audience to be able to reflect without being absorbed in the film, so my films may seem too tightly woven. In any case, I think that this criticism is proof that they’ve reflected on my films. Whether or not they accept them is their choice. I wanted to avoid making something that lets the audience freely dwell, breath, feel and leave without a trace.”[15]

This tight control over the audience through the narrative structure is the opposite of an open, realistic approach that would give the viewer freedom to interpret events. In this way, it can be argued that Lee “lies” to the audience in order to stimulate them. This stimulation, however, differs from ordinary cinematic pleasure and instead relates to the idea of moving the audience from its usual passivity. He does not want the viewer to “leave without a trace.” To achieve this, Lee combines a deterministic narrative structure with an approach to film style that is alternatively illusionist and realistic. Lee may be correct to stress the ordinary nature of his film. But he is demonstrability wrong in his assertion that Milyang does not display a clear formal patterning at the level of both narrative and style. In particular, Lee’s use of the long take is hardly as accidental as he claims. If the film’s form is examined closely, it can be seen that the realistic device of the long take is deployed at very precise and pivotal moments within the narrative structure.

Before getting to the specifics of the analysis, I want to briefly define how I will be using the term “long take.” As Ferninand de Saussure and the field of structural linguistics argue, all words depend upon difference to create meaning.[16] The use of the term “long take” as a stylistic description is a great example of this. What exactly is a long take as opposed to an “average” take or a “quick cut”? The answer is relative and should be taken in the context of established norms and even in the context of an individual film. For example, current mainstream filmmaking, both in Hollywood and in other popular national contexts, are cut extremely quickly compared to the classical model, a tendency David Bordwell has dubbed “intensified continuity.”[17] This extends into even “independent” U.S. cinema. An especially striking instance of this phenomenon is the recent indie-noir Brick (Rian Johnson, 2006), which Average Shot Length (ASL) is 4.5 seconds. This is considerably longer than in the detective films to which Brick is paying the most direct homage, The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941) and The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946). In this context, it could be argued that a shot lasting 20 or 30 seconds is very long. At the other end of the spectrum, art cinema auteurs such as Bela Tarr, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Theo Angelopoulos, and Hong Sang-Soo are pushing the long take to extremes rarely seen in earlier decades.[18] In these directors’ films, any shot less than 20 seconds is relatively short. Lee’s editing tends to be located between these two extremes. Secret Sunshine has an ASL of 20.6 seconds, the fastest cutting of all his work but still located far away from mainstream and minimalist approaches. In a film such as this, I do not think a shot lasting 30 seconds constituents a large enough deviation to be considered long. In this case, I propose that it is reasonable to consider any take lasting a minimum of 50 seconds to be classified as a “long take.”

Of course, just because Lee is employing the long take does not necessarily make his formal style realist. There are many examples of directors using the long take for anti-realist goals. Brian Henderson has analyzed the use of the long take in Godard’s Weekend, in which the flatness of the technique works to break the illusionism of bourgeois perspective.[19] Noël Burch has made similar arguments about Kenji Mizoguchi’s long-take “scroll shots” in his work of the 1930s, denouncing the more conventional (hence realist) use of the long take in Mizoguchi’s post-war work.[20] Secret Sunshine, however, follows in the realist tradition traced by theorist André Bazin. Throughout the film, Lee’s use of the long take follows principles similar to Bazinian realism. The mise-en-scène positions the characters in relation to the social world, allowing the viewer to interpret meaning from the arrangement of characters and objects. Bazin favored deep space compositions that allowed for an ambiguity of response that mirrored the ambiguity of reality itself, the goal being to bring the spectator “into a relation with the image closer to that which he enjoys with reality. Therefore, it is correct to say that independently of the contents of the image, its (the long take, deep space) structure is more realistic.”[21] Following from this, Bazin states that the viewer is “called upon to exercise at least a minimum of personal choice” and that ambiguity is at least theoretically reintroduced into the structure of the image.[22]

Generally, Lee follows these principles in his film. The goal of Lee’s long takes is to immerse the audience in the reality of the situation; even the often-hand-held camera movement is used to follow the protagonist and preserve the pro-filmic reality. Lee does not seem to desire to remain outside of a scene and always maintain distance, as is often the case with Asian minimalist directors like Hou Hsaio-hsien, who rarely penetrates the space of a scene. Lee’s style is more reminiscent of a Bazin favorite such as Jean Renoir, who was also, it should be noted, a popular filmmaker within his own country during the height of his artistry in the 1930s. 

Using this definition of the 50-second or longer shot constituting a long take and keeping in mind the generally realist function of the technique in the film, Lee’s editing method and construction becomes more apparent. Secret Sunshine’s narrative structure follows closely that identified by Kristin Thompson in her study Storytelling in the New Hollywood: Understanding Classical Narrative Technique (1999). Thompson argues against the notion that most popular films follow Syd Field’s three-act paradigm. Instead, she shows how narratives typically divide into roughly 25-30 minute segments marked by turning points.[23] Secret Sunshine follows this model fairly closely. The opening movement is marked by the turning point of the son’s kidnapping, which takes place at the 39-minute mark. This is slightly longer than usual, owing to Lee’s attempt to establish the quotidian nature of the town. After this first act, the major turns occur at expected intervals. The next movement ends with Shin-ae’s Christian conversion 31 minutes later, followed 25 minutes after that by the meeting with her son’s killer that causes her disillusionment. The narrative then follows her rebellion against God that culminates in her attempted suicide 33 minutes into the fourth movement. Lee finally adds a brief 10-minute coda to close the story. And true to Lee’s words in his interview, the editing rate does slow down as the story progresses. The first movement’s ASL is 17.5 seconds, the second movement’s is 20.5, the third’s 20.2, the fourth’s 26.8, and the coda’s 39.9. But contrary to Lee’s contention that this was simply done because it was too difficult to continue editing more quickly, a close analysis reveals that the long take is systematically deployed to coincide with key moments in the narrative construction.

The first 20 minutes of the film are the most “ordinary” in their decoupage and the most quotidian in their story events. This opening act is the least conventional passage in the narrative, both in terms of its length and its lack of clear goal and focus. There is an episodic dimension to the first movement that hints at an art cinema narration as identified by Bordwell.[24] But Lee avoids the long take style that would more strongly mark this opening as realist. Instead, the ASL of these first 20 minutes is 13.9 seconds. This is not the intensified continuity style of popular cinema, but it is within the cutting norms of the classical approach. Furthermore, Lee’s editing follows the shot/ reverse shot pattern common to dialogue sequences. In fact, nearly all of the shot transitions are reverse shots. There are only two long takes in this section. The first is a long two-shot of Shin-ae and her son sitting near a river as they wait for their car to be fixed. As in the classical style, the two-shot works to establish the importance of this relationship, and it allows Shin-ae’s explanation of why they are moving away from Seoul to take place within the natural environment. The other long take occurs immediately after the fade-out of the opening credits and is the first shot of the town of Milyang itself. It is a hand-held tracking shot from behind Shin-ae’s back. This visual motif of shots from behind Shin-ae, following her movements, will be repeated frequently throughout, an approach more in keeping with contemporary style but still maintaining a formal realism. The shot continues for 57 seconds, eventually including the son in two-shot as they wander through the new space of this small town, located at the margins of the South Korean nation. The audience is attached to Shin-ae and her position as an outsider from Seoul. But after this initial realist perspective, Lee reverts to repeated reverse field compositions to convey the very ordinary character of the milieu.

Following this shot, Lee avoids any long takes for over 10 minutes. But when he does re-introduce this strategy, it is for a key moment in the transition of the first act. Shin-ae has just finished being solicited by the zealous Christian Mrs. Kim at the local pharmacy. Because she has just lost her husband, Shin-ae is presumed to be vulnerable to indoctrination. Shin-ae rejects the pharmacist’s invitation, but in the process loses track of her son. As she enters her house, she cannot initially locate him, eventually moving outside to the backyard. Shin-ae kneels down and begins to sob, crying for her son. As it turns out, this is a performance. She knows Jun is hiding, and as we see him emerge from his hiding place, she jumps up to chase him. Despite this playfulness, the long take here marks an important foreshadowing as well as a dramatic movement towards the resolution of the first act, which concludes with Shin-ae learning of Jun’s kidnapping. The next 20 minutes will employ far more uses of the long take and a much higher ASL of 23 seconds. This coincides with the increase of dramatically important events. Many of these incidents are only significant in retrospective, but Lee’s use of the long take nevertheless marks their importance. Paradoxically, Lee is manipulating (or, as he may put it, lying) to the audience not through conventional methods of editing, but by eliminating these norms and temporally extending these takes. The “stimulation” Lee is giving the viewer is of a different variety than in much melodrama, but it is just as tightly controlled and coercive. 

After the scene of play-acting, there are six long takes before the phone call telling Shin-ae of Jun’s kidnapping. The first takes place at a construction site when Shin-ae meets with Mr. Kim and his friend and talks about purchasing land. This is also a performance, as we later learn. Shin-ae does not actually have the amount of money needed to invest in land, but her deception leads to Jun’s kidnapping for a ransom she cannot afford to pay. The next long take occurs when Shin-ae visits the hairdresser. As she sits on the chair, she hears a local businesswoman gossip about her, telling of how Shin-ae had presumptuously suggested the businesswoman change the decoration of her store. Before the shot ends, the woman discovers Shin-ae has overheard her, and they exchange an awkward greeting. This shot serves the purpose of indicating Shin-ae’s remove from the community, as well as setting up a structural return to this setting and this character at the narrative’s conclusion. Next, after a children’s performance at Jun’s school, there is a scene of the parents eating and drinking with the teacher who will eventually kidnap and kill Jun. Shin-ae receives a phone call about the land deal, which she announces to those at the table. Shin-ae and the teacher are centered, and a viewer watching the film a second time can clearly recognize the clues to the kidnapping Lee is signaling. Yet another performance follows, in which Shin-ae, supposedly a gifted pianist from the city, gives a display of her less than stellar ability. The long take serves to show her actual ability, as well as positioning Shin-ae against the background of the wealthy man’s apartment, making the shot one of the more obvious examples of Bazinian realism in the film.

The next two long takes foresee the final shot of the first movement, when Shin-ae learns of Jun’s abduction. Shin-ae is having drinks with fellow mothers from the school. She talks on the phone with Jun, and although we do not hear or see him, we can tell from the conversation that he is frightened. Shin-ae tells him to be brave and that she will be home soon. Two shots later, the women leave in a taxi and Shin-ae is left alone on the street. She gets a phone call but there is no answer. Through the increased use of long takes and real time, Lee has subtly yet surely signaled to the audience that something ominous is about to occur. Suspense and dread are created through these traditionally realist devices. This culminates when Shin-ae arrives home and looks for Jun. There is a cut as the phone rings, and Shin-ae rushes to answer. What follows is the longest take of the film thus far at 111 seconds. It is predominantly a medium close-up of Shin-ae listening and responding to the kidnapper’s demands. As Lee does throughout, this shot is handheld and thus not completely static. It marks the end of the first movement and the beginning of the first crisis of the melodrama. The handheld shot contributes to the realism of the scene and thus brings the viewer closer to the protagonist and her situation. Although Lee could have used the manipulations of editing to express this, the decision to present the phone call with one take is certainly a strategy that appeals to the affective dimension of audience response.

The realism here is thus used to convey the norm of melodramatic genre conventions, that of provoking emotion. This draws attention to the fact that realism and melodrama, despite seeming critically opposite, are nevertheless closely linked, perhaps because of their fundamental difference. Much theory of film melodrama, particularly the work of Linda Williams, stresses the element of realism used to intensify each new historical mode of melodrama. Williams expresses the relation as follows:

“Melodrama borrows from realism but realism serves the melodrama of pathos and action.”[25]

Since melodrama is chiefly concerned with affect, it uses techniques to increase the dramatic illusion. Still, Lee’s use of long-take realism generally is not used to this end; in fact, as the film progresses, it is more often used to distance the audience from the intense identification, affect and manipulation of traditional melodrama.

Over the next thirteen minutes, the story deals with Shin-ae’s desperate attempt to save Jun. The ASL over this section is 20.3 seconds, roughly the average of the entire film. Lee attempts to give the audience the experience of going through this ordeal with Shin-ae. There are many shots from Shin-ae’s point of view, especially as she is dropping off the money. In fact, Lee almost seems to be following a Hitchcockian form of suspense, but without the use of non-diegetic music, which Lee mostly eschews (with one notable exception, which I discuss below). Lee alternates this cutting technique with two long takes that are likewise used to align us with Shin-ae’s panicked state. The first is inside her car as she prepares to drop off the ransom money. The second is a near repeat of the earlier long take of her talking on the phone with the kidnapper. The difference is that Lee has now moved the camera back to medium-long shot. Having established the viewer’s identification with Shin-ae’s plight, Lee makes the decision to distance the audience slightly. Lee takes this strategy further in the scene in which Jun’s body is discovered. It is the longest take of the film so far at 121 seconds. The shot begins with Shin-ae exiting the police vehicle and moving into close-up, with a swarm of flies between her and the camera. She then follows the police down a riverbank as the camera stays and watches the scene in extreme long shot. On the soundtrack, Lee inserts one of the few examples of non-diegetic music used in the entire film. Instead of using a tight close-up and an emotional breakdown from Shin-ae, Lee keeps at a distance and uses the music track to impart the sorrow, cutting to silence just before the shot ends to punctuate the sense of loss. The opposing poles of realism and melodrama are combined to direct the audience towards an emotional register while also denying (or at least delaying) any cathartic release. The approach recalls that of the Japanese master of melodrama, Kenji Mizoguchi, who would often film highly charged scenes with a long take/ long shot style. In particular, this shot recalls Mizoguchi’s famous handling of the murder of Miyagi in Ugetsu Monogotari (1953).

But the distance here is not only that of the director himself. As we soon learn, it is expressive of how Shin-ae herself has temporarily shut off emotionally. The next two scenes feature histrionics usually seen in melodramas, but in each case it not Shin-ae who shows the violent reaction. First, Jun’s murderer is brought into the police station, and Shin-ae’s friend Mr. Kim yells and tries to attack him. Shin-ae just observes. Next, at Jun’s funeral, his grandmother sobs hysterically as the doors close on his coffin. Shin-ae simply stands at the back of the room and exits. The following shot is a long take in the parking lot as the grandmother screams at Shin-ae for her seemingly apathetic reaction. Shin-ae does not respond, and eventually Mr. Kim interrupts to defend her. After the grandmother and the family exit, the next shot shows Shin-ae kneeling on the concrete. She asks Mr. Kim why she did not react when she saw her son’s killer, explaining that she felt like tearing him in pieces and yet just looked away. Lee uses another long take/ long shot here, not to distance the audience from the protagonist but to have us identify with her unresponsiveness. This is in contrast to the two expressions of emotion we have just witnessed, which were shown in closer shots and edited together more quickly. Both Mr. Kim and Jun’s grandmother may have been expressing genuine feeling, but those articulations are presented as more superficial, less sincere because of the very public nature of the utterances. Lee has shown us, in her private moments, the depth of Shin-ae’s despair. After spending much of the first act of the film performing, Shin-ae no longer possesses the will to construct a socially appropriate response. Lee views this not as a lack of authentic feeling, but rather as the first bona fide break with social hypocrisy Shin-ae makes.

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