A young widow (Jeon Do-yeon) and her little boy leave Seoul for the smaller city of Miryang, where her late husband grew up, in order to begin a new life. As the woman tries to fit in with her new neighbors, a surprise kidnapping attempt changes her life and forces her through several crises of faith.
I'm cautious not to give much more away, because one of the joys of watching this film for me was not really knowing much about it beforehand. Alas, not many Americans will even get the chance to see Secret Sunshine in theaters, as it never obtained a US release. [UPDATE: weirdly, the film had a formal American theatrical run – in 2010! – but I really did see it in 2007 during its brief run at the local art house.]
Jeon won Best Actress at Cannes this year, and it's not hard to see why: her performance is a tour de force, running the full emotional gamut during the film's lengthy running time (roughly two and a half hours). She's the main reason to see the bleak Secret Sunshine, a well-made picture that, unfortunately, despite its complex religious questions and its intense emotional buildup, ends with a thudding anticlimax.
This seems to be a common trend amongst today's art films (see No Country for Old Men), and frankly it drives me crazy. I don't need a happy ending – far from it, in fact – but I do prefer an ending, something that leaves you with a lump in your throat, a tear on your cheek, or the feeling that you just experienced something. Rashomon, The Bicycle Thief, and Nights of Cabiria are no less powerful for having solid, distinct conclusions, even if their characters face uncertain futures. Let's hope today's filmmakers come back around to this, so we poor audience members aren't left with just a shrug when the credits roll.