When young widow Shin Ae took her son on a relocation from Seoul to small town Miryang, her car inadvertently breaks down. That is how the film starts and it should only get better from there, but it doesn’t.
Shin Ae is a young mother in a world filled with possibilities, so it wouldn’t come as a surprise when no one in the film could quite understand why she chose to move to Miryang. Based on popular film conventions, a character usually moves to a secluded town to escape a horrid past but instead, Shin Ae is consumed by tragedy. Submerged deep in depressive romanticism, she chose to relocate because Miryang is the hometown of her deceased husband. Such was her infatuation that she asked a native Miryang if he understood what Miryang meant. When the native didn’t, she fervently reveals that it meant “Secret Sunshine.”
When Shin Ae’s vehicle broke down in the middle of nowhere, Kim Jong Chan, a mechanic, comes to her rescue. Kim would be Shin Ae’s pursuer in the film however, he’s no knight in shining armour; Kim is just a regular, middle-aged man who’s dedicated, honest, and upright.
Kim has all the realistic values that could support a heartbroken widow to get her life back on track, but he couldn’t if he tried; Kim could not restart Shin Ae’s vehicle from the breakdown and this is by no means a casual scene, but a film motif masterfully constructed by Director Lee Chang Dong. Kim tows Shin Ae’s vehicle to Miryang and based on this motif, it should serve as a consolation of closure should a viewer find the ending ambivalent.
In moving to Miryang, Shin Ae’s predicament has to be addressed. To concretely move on, she has to stop romanticising and let go. In fact, she must either attain enlightenment or she will drown in her sorrows, rather, in Secret Sunshine, Shin Ae would discover that the two drastically different entities can co-exist grimly as one. When suffering is imminent and there’s no light at the end of the tunnel, Shin Ae, again, falls into the trap of romanticising; this time, with her ‘one and only saviour’, God.
Religion is a grandiose concept that forgives all sinners but it is not comprehensible to a romantic like Shin Ae. A romantic can only be satisfied with fantasies of perfectionism. Perhaps, from the moment Shin Ae decided to move to Miryang after her husband’s death, she was always going to be late to any cathartic realisation. At her most dire time, she chose to hope for miracles in religion when miracles can no longer be made.
Through Shin Ae, the entire final act evidently questions the consolations of religion in the struggle for existentialism. Truth comes by the passing day, and it’s not bright, but maybe that is the Secret Sunshine Shin Ae needs in order to let go and move forward.
In Secret Sunshine, Lee Chang Dong has designed a remarkably crafty masterpiece made in the eyes of god and impaired by the genius of the filmmaker.