copyright 2010, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 52, summer 2010

“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.

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] 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.

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]

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.


1. Young-jin Kim, Lee Chang-dong (Seoul: Korean Film Council, 2007): 23. [return to text]

2. ibid, 19.

3. ibid, x.

4. ibid, 9.

5. ibid, 90.

6. ibid, 64.

7. M sold 448,350 tickets in South Korea; by contrast, Secret Sunshine had sales of 1,710,364 (data from the Korean Film Council, available on-line at

8. I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK sold only 739, 481 tickets in South Korea, despite the presence of the international pop star Rain (aka Jung Ji-Hoon).
See http://koreanfilm.org/films2006.html.

9. Young-jin Kim, 4.

10. ibid, 5.

11. ibid, 4.

12. To give one example among the numerous available, the documentary Directed by John Ford (Peter Bogdanovich, 1971) has Ford repeatedly refuting Bogdanovich’s attempts to read deeper meaning into his work.

13. For a intelligent discussion of the extreme variation between “fast” mainstream and “slow” art cinema style, see Matthew Flanagan, “Towards an Aesthetic of Slow in Contemporary Cinema,” 16:9 no. 29 (November 2008);

14. Darcy Paquet, “Secret Sunshine,”

15. Young-jin Kim, 66-67.

16. A succinct yet cogent overview of Saussure and his ideas can be found in Catherine Belsey, “Chapter 1: Creatures of Difference” in her Poststructuralism: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002): 1-22.

17. David Bordwell, “Intensified Continuity: Visual Style in Contemporary American Film,” Film Quarterly 55, no. 3 (2002): 16-28.

18. For example, most of the higher ASLs on the Cinemetrics website come from the last two decades: Satantango (Bela Tarr, 1994), ASL 145 seconds; Eternity and a Day (Theo Angelopoulos, 1998), ASL 114 seconds; and Woman is the Future of Man (Hong Sang-soo, 2004), ASL 98 seconds.
See http://www.cinemetrics.lv/database.php?sort=asl.

19. Brian Henderson, “Toward a Non-Bourgeois Camera Style,” in Movies and Methods, Volume I (edited by Bill Nichols) (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976): 388-400.

20. To quote Burch directly: “Judged according to the stylistic criterion of dominant criticism, Life of Oharu (1952) and Sansho Dayu (1954) are no doubt in all respects the equal of Sisters of the Gion or The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum. But from our historically and theoretically oriented standpoint the importance of these early films is incomparably greater; their superior internal rigor is due in large part to the director’s fidelity to the otherness of his native culture – just as his ultimate decline must be understood within the context of Japan’s historical situation and that of her cinema after the 1945 defeat.” Noël Burch, To the Distant Observer: Form and Meaning in the Japanese Film (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979): 246.

21. André Bazin, “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema,” in What is Cinema? Volume 1 (Translated by Hugh Gray) (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971): 35.

22. Bazin, 36.

23. Kristin Thompson, Storytelling in the New Hollywood: Understanding Classical Narrative Technique (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999). Also, see Thompson follow-up blog post, “Times Go By Turns,” (June 21, 2008), available at:

24. David Bordwell, “The Art Cinema as a Mode of Film Practice,” in Poetics of Cinema (New York: Routledge, 2008): 151-169.

25. Linda Williams, Playing the Race Card: Melodramas of Black and White From Uncle Tom to O.J. Simpson (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002): 38.

26. Kyung Hyun Kim, The Remasculinization of Korean Cinema (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004): 26.

27. So Young Kim, “Do not include me in your ‘us’: Peppermint Candy and the Politics of Difference,” Korea Journal 46, no. 1 (Spring 2006): 60-83.

28. Martha P. Nochimson, “Anxiety: New York Film Festival Report (Part One),” Film-Philosophy 11, no. 3: 7-8.

29. Young-jin Kim, 75.

30. ibid, 79.

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