Shin-ae tries, unsuccessfully, to return to teaching piano.

Shin-ae arrives at the church.

A long take, static shot from the back of the church is the most unusual directorial choice in the film.

Shin-ae is finally able to release her emotion.

In close-up, Shin-ae starts to describe her Christian conversion and ...

... the camera slowly pulls back until it frames the entire social gathering in long shot.

Shin-ae expresses her first moment of post-conversion crisis with the first of many looks upward towards God.

Shin-ae watches the daughter of her sonís killer being abused ...

... as she looks out her car window and drives on.

She goes to the prison with people from her church group to confront and forgive Jun's murderer but ...

... he joyously tells her he has already found God and the Lord's forgiveness.

She collapses in the parking lot after leaving the prison.

Shin-ae lies in the hospital bed and experiences a profound depression.

Long take of Shin-ae depicts her odd behaviour with the church group as she begins her rejection of God.

Shot from behind, Shin-ae enters a store and steals a CD.

Shin-ae seduces the pharmacist and is depicted ...

... in an overhead (Godís eye?) shot as she has sex with him by the side of the road.

Mr. Kim finally erupts in anger.

Shin-ae cuts herself (hands off-screen) as she again looks up and asks if God is watching.

Breaking down, Shin-ae runs outside, looking for help after her self-mutilation.

People hear her cries and the long take ends as Lee finishes with a close-up of Shin-ae.

Mr. Kim picks her up from the hospital mental ward and at her request, taks her to a hairdresserís. The murdererís daughter works there now, and Shin-ae leaves with her hair half-cut.

Outside the shop, Shin-ae gives her last look upwards.

Shin-ae then encounters the shop owner.

In the final long take, Shin-ae cuts her own hair and ...

... the final image, as Lee moves away from Shin-ae, rests on the ground.


With Jun’s death, however, both Shin-ae and the narrative as a whole face a significant problem. There is now a lack of meaning, a lack of direction. For the next ten minutes of the film, the “ordinariness” of the opening twenty minutes returns. The difference is that Shin-ae’s social role as mother has now been taken away, and both Shin-ae and the film need some kind of goal to break with this stasis. Lee’s style here returns to the more conventional cutting and composition that marked the first section. The ASL of these ten minutes is 14.3 seconds, and the vast majority of shots are reverse field figures. There is only one long take, of Shin-ae and one of her piano students. Shin-ae tries to resume her job, but as she attempts to give the student instructions she slowly begins to cry. Meaning is not going to come from her profession. Finally, after a painful scene in which she registers Jun’s death at town hall, Shin-ae stumbles upon a church meeting for “wounded souls.” Although she had rejected the pharmacist’s earlier attempts to offer her religious solace, Shin-ae decides to enter the meeting. It is here where the second movement of the film will end, with Shin-ae finally breaking down in hysterical sobs and accepting Christianity to provide her world with meaning.

The way in which Lee shoots this scene is the most peculiar of the entire film. After a series of cuts, there is a close-up of Shin-ae looking intensely around the room. Then, curiously, Lee cuts to the back of the hall. This static shot holds there for 88 seconds. Shin-ae is not visible, but eventually her screams of woe are heard on the soundtrack. Finally, Lee cuts to a medium shot of Shin-ae crying loudly with grief, moving into close-up as the preacher touches her head. Shin-ae stops crying and the scene ends. Why does Lee shoot the scene this way? In particular, what purpose does the seemingly unmotivated cut to the back of the church serve? There are no easy answers to these questions.

I would suggest that the cut to the back of the crowd is a device for Lee to complicate the extremely melodramatic nature of the sequence. Unlike the earlier distancing, it is not meant to mirror Shin-ae’s emotions. It is a purely formal intervention on Lee’s part. For a director who claimed that he wanted this film to be simply normal, it is quite possibly the most abnormal shot in all of Lee’s filmography. Because the take continues for so long and at such a remove from the action, it mitigates the emotional impact of the next shot when Lee does show Shin-ae’s breakdown. The last shot of Shin-ae before the cut to the back of the hall is one of hesitation, almost confusion, as if she is trying to will herself to emotional expression. By cutting away from her and then only returning once her sobbing begins, Lee not only distances the audience. He questions the authenticity of the moment, and thus the genuineness of the entire Christian conversion that follows. This is not to say that Shin-ae is lying consciously. Rather, she is forcing herself to believe in order to give her life meaning and, more importantly, to give Jun’s death a purpose. The long-take close-up of Shin-ae is so powerfully acted by Jeon Do-yeon that we do not question the sincerity of her grief. But Lee’s direction does interrogate its authenticity because of the public nature of her reaction. 

The beginning of the third movement is marked by the longest take of the film so far (132 seconds). There is a close-up of Shin-ae as she begins to tell her story of conversion, stating, “I had been feeling an agonizing pressure on my heart. Now it has gone. I have found peace. I now truly believe that whatever happens comes to pass by God’s will.” Her fellow church member then praise God’s grace for giving peace to Shin-ae and relieving her suffering, re-iterating familiar and clichéd homilies of religion. Lee’s camera slowly pulls back to reveal the other members of the prayer circle as well as the busy street in the background window. Eventually, Mr. Kim enters from the back of the frame and awkwardly joins the group at screen right. The realism of the long take continues the subtle questioning of Shin-ae’s conversion. The gradual revealing of the social space in which these stereotypical lines about the healing power of faith are recited undercuts any simple belief. The character of Mr. Kim is important in this regard, and he will continue to play a more critical role as the narrative proceeds. The audience is meant to see Mr. Kim’s sudden interest in religion as simply related to his infatuation with Shin-ae. Two scenes later, Shin-ae confronts him about this, questioning his faith and asking him to swear that he really believes. Mr. Kim is quiet and the shot cuts. He seems to admit that his “faith” is a means to an end. But in this way he is merely the more obvious mirror of Shin-ae’s own doubt. For like Mr. Kim, she had an ulterior motive for her belief. As the narrative continues, it will be Shin-ae, not Mr. Kim, who abandons religion when it no longer serves her purpose.

After the sequences before Shin-ae’s conversion, which were the most ordinary in the film, Lee changes his style again following Shin-ae’s newly found spirituality. Over the next twelve and a half minutes of the film, there are only twenty shots (making for an ASL of 37.5 seconds). Regardless of whether Shin-ae’s Christianity is genuine or not, it has given meaning to both her character and the film. The beginning of the third act’s style reflects this overcoming a lack of meaning by abandoning the ordinary cutting of the end of the second act. Part of this is the social nature of these scenes. Shin-ae’s meaning is not only found in God, but in the Christian community that surrounds her. It is thus appropriate that the first sign of the breakdown in her faith occurs when she is alone in her home. There is a long take, frontal close-up of Shin-ae eating. She gradually begins to cry. To comfort herself, she recites the Lord’s Prayer. In the background a young boy is partially seen and heard entering her house. Shin-ae turns and follows him to the bathroom, thinking it may be Jun. Anyone familiar with Lee’s previous film, Oasis, is tempted to think that this may be another realistically presented fantasy scene. As it turns out, the boy is not Jun, but just someone from the neighborhood. What this indicates is that Shin-ae’s prayers are not simply a bowing to God’s will, but rather a way in which to deny her loss of Jun and the guilt she feels.

This sequence is followed by one of the more disturbing in the film, as Shin-ae witnesses the teacher’s daughter being abused by a group of boys. Shin-ae simply watches this and finally drives away, almost hitting a pedestrian couple as a result. These events recall earlier parts of the narrative, as did the previous scene and her false recognition of Jun. The teacher’s daughter is an obvious reminder of Jun’s death. But Lee implicates Shin-ae in this cruelty towards a child through the use of reverse field editing. Shin-ae watches this unsettling display of abuse but does not stop it. One can even suspect that she perversely enjoys seeing the child of her son’s murderer being punished. Shin-ae is both compelled by the scene and repulsed by her own attraction to the violence inflicted on the girl, hence her quick speeding away and near accident. This event is a parallel of the early scenes when Shin-ae is driving with the ransom money to try to save Jun. In this sequence she also nearly hits pedestrians because of her panicked emotional state. Following the slower pace of editing in the opening of the third act, Lee here uses a quicker editing style that makes liberal use of point of view and reverse shots. These two scenes only take three and a half minutes of screen time, but incorporate twenty-one shots (for an ASL of 10 seconds). The breakdown of the calm assurance of faith is expressed through Lee’s editing and direction. The next long takes Lee gives are when Shin-ae, in an attempt to overcome her growing anxiety, announces to the church group that she has decided to visit Jun’s murderer in prison. Shin-ae explains that she wants to forgive him and so follow God’s example. The other church members praise her courage and her faith, but the previous scenes give the viewer a different interpretation. Shin-ae needs something to accomplish to give her life meaning and to exorcize her own personal demons. As we will see, her act of Christian charity in forgiving the teacher is a selfish act. It is a displacement for the forgiveness she herself desires.

The confrontation at the prison marks the end of the third movement. This four-minute scene consists of sixteen shots, all of which are reverse field cuts. The ordinariness of Lee’s editing undercuts Shin-ae’s desire for a meaningful confrontation in much the same way as the teacher’s revelation does: he says that he believes God has already forgiven him. The only unusual part of the sequence is the presence of Mr. Kim in the background of Shin-ae’s compositions, which provides two different reactions to the teacher’s comments. Mr. Kim’s expression is neutral compared to the visible affect Shin-ae shows. When they leave the prison, Mr. Kim speaks to the fellow church members about the conversion and the greatness of God’s will. As he does throughout the film, Mr. Kim fails to comprehend Shin-ae and her emotions and motivations. This is not so much a sign of his obtuseness as much as it is Lee’s decision to give the viewer access to Shin-ae’s private space. In contrast, Mr. Kim and the other church members can only see Shin-ae’s public performance. This is exemplified in the next scene, in which Mr. Kim enters Shin-ae’s hospital room.  He approaches from behind as Shin-ae lies on the bed. The viewer, but not Mr. Kim, can see her expression, both despairing and withdrawn. It is important to note, however, that Shin-ae does not end her belief in God. Rather, the next movement of the film details Shin-ae’s rebellion against religion and the patriarchal order in general. 

At this point, it is necessary to briefly discuss the relation between Shin-ae and the patriarchal structure of Korean society. The key text on Korean cinema and patriarchy is Kyung Hyun Kim’s The Remasculinization of Korean Cinema (2004), which argues that even the politically progressive New Korean Cinema maintained a focus on masculinity and a neglect of female experience. Kim critiques Lee in particular along gender lines. For example, Kim ends his introduction with this description of Peppermint Candy:

“Peppermint Candy reveals the narcissistic and obsessive tendencies of the male that laments only his loss and failure though the man has enjoyed a privileged representation so far. Turning back the clock is only possible in the fantastic realm of the movies, where Peppermint Candy ends with the young Y?ng-ho holding a flower in his hand and wondering about the origin of his “déjà-vu” at the river by the railroad track, the very spot where he will die twenty years later. But the Korean cinema’s misogynistic hope of recovering a wholesome maleness and purity from fantasy, as if it can be transposed to be absolutely real, is, in the final analysis, impossible.”[26][open endnotes in new window]

The Korean scholar Kim So Young has likewise critiqued this film along gender lines.[27] The association of masculinity, nostalgia and purity continues in Secret Sunshine, but I would argue that Lee is answering earlier critics of his work through the character of Shin-ae. This is a film very much centered on female subjectivity, as the whole narrative revolves around Shin-ae and the great performance by Jeon Do-yeon. Lee is taking the great character work he achieved with Moon So-ri in Oasis and now making it the center of the entire film. Moreover, Shin-ae herself goes through a process that begins with an unquestioning acceptance of patriarchy and ends with an acceptance of life and a rejection of notions of purity and idealism. She begins by moving to her dead husband’s small hometown, a desire to associate herself with both patriarchal masculinity and Korea’s more rural past. It is a decision few people understand, especially her brother, who reminds her that her dead husband was unfaithful. Shin-ae denies this, as she does with many of the more painful aspects of her life; she tries, to paraphrase Kyung Hyun Kim, to recover a masculine fullness and purity in fantasy. It is only when this fantasy is finally shattered that she can achieve peace. The last movement shows this final progression, but Shin-ae has to first rebel against the patriarchal structure she had previously worshipped.

This last section is the most stylistically diverse of the film, alternating between rapidly edited moments and shots of extended duration, culminating with the longest take of the picture. The ASL of this section (roughly 33 and one half minutes in length) is 27 seconds, considerably longer than earlier movements of the narrative, but contains within it the shortest cuts as well. Just as the narrative is moving towards its climax, so is Lee’s style of long takes and conventional edits. This is because Shin-ae herself is moving towards an end point in her existential crisis of meaning. The violent shifts in style mark this anguish. Shin-ae achieves meaning through her acts of rebellion, but this comes at a harsh price, ending with her own self-mutilation.

Following a rather conventionally edited scene in which Shin-ae goes to a church and causes a minor disturbance, she is back with her church group. This over three-minute scene is handled with just two shots. The first shot positions Shin-ae in the back right of the frame as the reverend asks the group to pray for her. Lee then cuts to a shot that centrally positions Shin-ae, framed between Mr. Kim and the reverend. She announces the betrayal she feels from God, who has forgiven and given peace to her son’s murderer but not to her. She then rises and asks everyone to leave. As she walks to the kitchen, she screams in terror in reaction to something out of frame. Mr. Kim rises and states that it was only an earthworm. Shin-ae collapses to the ground and continues to sob loudly and violently. This is one of the oddest moments in the story, and one without any clear and immediate explanation. It does become more explicable by the conclusion, as I will discuss shortly, but for the moment it is important to point out the stylistic decision to use a long take and a long shot for this incident. The fact that the viewer does not see anything disturbing, and that Mr. Kim dismisses the earthworm as harmless, indicates the psychological nature of Shin-ae’s reaction. This revulsion and terror at the natural world is in many ways understandable for a character that views God as a malevolent force. The solution Shin-ae attempts is openly to defy and rebel against God and those who follow Christianity. Although Shin-ae no longer believes in God, she needs God as a presence to allow meaning to continue. But as this sequence already foreshadows, the psychic cost to Shin-ae will be too much.

The next twenty minutes of the film detail Shin-ae’s various acts of social disturbance. This begins with a long take of her shoplifting a CD from a local store, only to be caught. Next, Shin-ae interrupts an outdoor sermon by playing the same CD (featuring the song “Lies”) from the PA system. This scene is very quickly edited, including many shots of the church audience praying and then being disturbed by Shin-ae’s actions. Despite the childishness of Shin-ae’s behavior, I would argue that Lee’s editing identifies with her attempt to break the complacent and inauthentic religion being practiced here. The members of the audience are never seen as being genuine in their actions, unlike the genuine despair experienced by Shin-ae. The many cuts to many different members of the crowd both reinforces the generic and rehearsed nature of their grief, at least from Shin-ae’s perspective. Next, after re-enacting the original phone call of Jun’s kidnapping, Shin-ae calls Mr. Kim for a date. But she breaks this engagement in order to seduce the local pharmacist, the husband of the woman who originally tried to persuade her to accept religion. Lee edits this sequence very similarly to the earlier scenes between Shin-ae and the man’s wife. Here the dramatic situation is reversed. Shin-ae is the seducer, and she is trying to lure the man away from rather than towards God. They go for a drive and then stop in an open field. The editing slows at this point, with Shin-ae pointedly glancing upwards before she gets out of the car, inviting God’s gaze. Lee cuts to a long take overhead shot (over 60 seconds in length), looking down on the two as they begin to have sex. Shin-ae looks at the camera, and states, “Can you see?” At the level of narrative, she is talking to God, but at the formal level, it appears she is also talking to the omniscient, God-like spectator in the audience. The man, however, is unable to perform sexually, stating that he feels that “God is watching.” At this point, the film’s editing returns to “normal.” From an overhead perspective, Lee shows Shin-ae vomit, the physical manifestation of her emotional distress that will climax shortly.

Having failed to seduce one man, Shin-ae next turns to Mr. Kim. The scene begins with a long take in his apartment as he talks on the phone with his constantly criticizing mother. Shin-ae enters and sits opposite him. There are four reverse-field cuts as Shin-ae talks to him and asks if he wants to have sex. The shot holds as Mr. Kim rises to her taunts about his lack of action. Throughout, Mr. Kim has been a loyal friend to Shin-ae, but she rejects him, likely because he is not the cultural ideal of masculinity. However, her taunting here finally causes him to react. The camera pans to follow him to the other side of the room where his frustration boils over and he begins to smash things. He quickly regains his composure, but Shin-ae runs away and heads back out into the street. Lee’s camera tracks behind her as she talks to herself, seemingly about her father. There is a cut to a frontal view as Shin-ae once again looks upward and says, “I won’t lose to you. Never.” At this point, Shin-ae’s rebellion is not only against God, but also her father, her dead husband, her brother, and patriarchy in general. In any case, God has become personified, an entity onto which Shin-ae can project her existential rage. She decides to interrupt the prayer meeting being held by her church group for her benefit, breaking their window after observing their meeting from the outside. At this point, there is very little place for her rage to find expression except inward. This is how the film reaches its climax.

Shin-ae is alone at home, doing the dishes. As usual, Lee first shoots her from behind, and then gives the reverse shot. She rubs her face with ice, as if to try to feel something and end her numbness, and then quickly turns on all the lights and sits at the living room table. There is a cut to a medium close-up, the last edit of the scene. The next shot is the longest take of the film at 155 seconds, and it is the height of the narrative’s melodrama as well. Shin-ae is eating an apple with a knife, an action located below the frame. She looks up and asks, “Are you looking? Do you see?” From her pained expression, one can guess that she is cutting herself, although this is not revealed until the camera finally tilts down. Shin-ae then stumbles out unto the street, with the camera following behind her. She desperately asks people on the street to help her, reaching out at one point to a woman who avoids her. The shot ends with a close-up of Shin-ae’s face and a fade out. This scene both conforms to the conventions of melodrama and subverts them. The melodramatic villain, for example, is not a character, but rather God himself. Shin-ae mutilates herself and then looks to be rescued in the tradition of last-minute heroics, but she only receives shocked stares from a rather indifferent society. The film cannot offer any easy solution to her suffering, because there is no tangible villain to be confronted (as Lee had already subverted the villain in the early scene at the prison). Instead, Lee offers a rather de-dramatized coda that nevertheless offers some degree of hope compared to the relentless suffering of the rest of the narrative. 

The coda begins with Mr. Kim and Shin-ae’s brother driving to pick her up at the hospital. They meet Shin-ae, and then immediately drop off the brother at the train station. This is the first of many repetitions of early scenes Lee will use over these last ten minutes of the story. In this case, it is one more example of the distance between Shin-ae and her brother and the purely ceremonial nature of their relationship. In the next repetition, Shin-ae is taken to the hairdresser. Here, typical of the coincidences of melodrama, the daughter of her son’s murderer is now working there. After beginning to have her hair cut by that young woman, Shin-ae storms off. Mr. Kim follows her and asks what is wrong. She asks why he brought her to this salon. Mr. Kim is oblivious. Shin-ae looks up to the sky and turns and leaves. Next, she encounters the shop-owner who had earlier criticized her (a scene that had also taken place at a hair salon). But now the woman says that she has taken Shin-ae’s advice. The shop owner asks about Shin-ae’s half-cut hair, and Shin-ae tells her she got up and left because she didn’t like the salon. When the woman calls her crazy, Shin-ae immediately becomes embarrassed by her inappropriate comment. However, the two women begin laughing, sharing one of the few moments of camaraderie in the movie. The fact that Shin-ae has left behind her brother and Mr. Kim to find a moment of connection with another woman is significant here, showing Shin-ae moving away from patriarchy. This movement continues with the next scene, a 147 second sequence shot that ends the film.

Shin-ae returns home and enters the backyard in order to finish cutting her hair. As she begins cutting in front of a mirror, Mr. Kim enters from the back of the frame. He offers to hold it up for her, and Shin-ae accepts. Lee tracks in slightly to frame Shin-ae in the mirror, with Mr. Kim’s head out of the frame. There is then a tilt down to the ground, where the wind blows the fallen hair over to the ground. The shot then holds on the ground for over 30 seconds until there is a fade-out and the end credits begin to run. Non-diegetic music also makes a rare appearance here. This shot is another of the series of returns made during the conclusion. This is the space of the first time in which Jun goes missing (although it was in the form of “play”). And, as Martha P. Nochimson has noted, the last shot of the dirt recalls the opening shot of the sky, a metaphor for the greater movement away from abstraction and towards concrete life. [28] Shin-ae has seemingly stopped viewing God and the universe as a force, accepting the meaning of the concrete and of the everyday. She has also taken responsibility for and control of her actions and her life. And for a film in which we constantly see the character looking up towards the sky, the final image of the ground, held for a very long time, is not only the image of the director Lee but of his character/surrogate Shin-ae as well. It is here that the editing rate has slowed the most, in marked contrast to the editing of the film’s opening. The very ordinary nature of the coda is now not marked by the repeated reverse field classical approach, but by the use of long take realism. In this way, the characters of Shin-ae and director Lee are parallel. Shin-ae spends the film lying in various ways before finally reaching an acceptance. Likewise, if Lee had to stimulate the audience by “lying” earlier, he now wants to close his film by telling the truth.

In conclusion, far from an “ordinary” film, Secret Sunshine is an attempt to merge an art cinema style with a more classical editing approach. The seemingly simple style of the film masks the fact that, as always, Lee’s aesthetic is intensely political in its attempt to connect with a mass audience and find social meaning. I argue that this is one of the reasons Shin-ae and her story so attracted him. The idea of meaning and meaninglessness obsesses Kim. He has stated that he is trying to “create as much meaning as possible and communicate with the audience through my films,” but then claims that he doesn’t think it is possible to communicate through this medium.[29] After completing Milyang, he claimed that he was “seriously considering not making films anymore” because he is “pessimistic about the future of film. How can we stimulate the audience, and with what?”[30] This is why I feel Milyang is as close to an artist statement we are likely to get from Lee.

What the film reveals is that his pessimism stems from his very idealism. The movement of the visuals from sky to earth grounds that idealism in materiality, but it hardly represents a complete rejection of the world. There is a hopeful reading to the conclusion, in that Shin-ae has survived and assumed responsibility, breaking with the bad faith she was exhibiting. And it is hopeful in that, after a five-year absence, Lee completed another work of art and overcame (at least temporarily) the paralysis of meaninglessness. Despite his pessimism about the future of the medium, he has attempted to reach a mass audience without compromising his attempt to make socially significant art. It may not be a model that can be followed in other national contexts, and it may soon be impossible within the film medium, as Lee suggests. But it is nevertheless an honorable goal, a striving to make art socially relevant that is to be admired. In short, it is an ethical act.

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