The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it. –Flannery O’Connor
As “Secret Sunshine” opens, recently widowed Jeon Do-ywon and her 8-year-old son are in the process of moving from the city to her late husband’s hometown of Mingyang, in an attempt to start a new life in a happier place. She is a woman of guts and composure, determined to put tragedy behind her, find the silver lining in everything, and provide a good life for her son. But it all goes wrong.
Director Lee Chang-dong elegantly captures the feeling of being a new person, and especially a new person with a past, in a small town. Do-ywon’s neighbors are alternately politely friendly and slightly suspicious. They’re not hostile or cliqueish, they’re just reluctant to open their arms to her until they know her a little better. The exception is Song Kan-h0, a lonely mechanic whose devotion to Do-ywon is at first kind of creepy, and then comical, and then endearing. He clearly would like to be romantically involved with her, but his approach is to follow her around like a puppy dog, ignore her rebuffals, and wait patiently for her to give him a chance.
Tragedy strikes Do-ywon, and her sunny resolve crumbles. Lost in her grief and anguish, she sees a streetside banner for a church service: “healing for the wounded soul.” She wanders into the church service, where she does seem to find solace, and converts to Christianity. Despite cinematic convention (in which all conversions are fake) and even some critics’ reading of this film (which may be more fuled by said convention that actual observation of the film,) I don’t think it is the director’s intention to mislead us here; I think the conversion is meant to be real, and truly transforming. Do-ywon really does find solace and a degree of peace in her new church community, and does come to believe in God and let the Bible form her life.
Indeed, her devotion surprises her community around her, all of whom seem committed more to simple piety than to truly engaging the scriptures and obeying the teachings of Jesus in all their risk, scandal, and impropriety. Do-ywon decides, after some time, that she needs to forgive the man who has brought so much grief and pain to her life. (This is the decision that convinces me that her conversion was real and her faith is genuine; nobody seeking comfort in a stable community, simple answers and a sunny worldview would ever go this far with Jesus’ instruction to love your enemies.) But when she visits him in prison, she discovers that he, too, has come to faith. The idea that God would forgive this man before she was able to, or that the peace and comfort she has found might also be available to him, is more than she can bear; she passes out in the parking lot after the visit.
Do-ywon spends the rest of the movie in a rapid descent into madness. She does not stop believing in God; one could speculate that she has experienced too much for that to be a possibility. But she cannot abide the kind of God that she has come to believe in; one who both causes evil, terrible things to happen (she is told repeatedly by her empty-minded, pious friends that “everything happens for a reason”) and also forgives and pardons and even extends love to the people who do evil, terrible things. She makes several attempts to hurt God, because she believes she has been hurt by him. (Again, unlike most of the critics I’ve read, I don’t think she’s trying to tear down a false religious system; she’s trying to strike a blow against the Supreme Being himself.)
“Secret Sunshine” is a powerful, dark, intense film, and it reminded me a great deal of the stories and novels of Flannery O’Connor. O’Connor understood the scandalous nature of God’s grace better, perhaps, than any other writer or artist in her generation; indeed, better than most theologians. The movie does not end well — you either fall on the cornerstone or the cornerstone falls on you — but I choose to believe it’s not the end of the story for this character, either.
This has been a remarkable summer for movies that choose to explore the depths of Christianity rather than exploit or mock it. “Secret Sunshine” ranks right up there, for me, with “Of Gods and Men” and “Tree of Life” for movies that challenge me to think, to pray, and to consider what it means to be a Christian. This questions feels deeply relevant to me, as a believer; I hope it feels equally relevant to non-believers; one should at least be able to see, from this trio of movies, that there is more to Christianity than what you’ll find in “Fireproof” or on Christian radio & TV these days. I am deeply grateful that a movie like “Secret Sunshine” exists, and I heartily recommend it to anyone interested in exploring the depths of the Christian faith.