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For me, Lee Chang-dong’s 2007 feature (which received a belated theatrical release in Chicago this past January) is the greatest film yet produced by the so-called Korean New Wave, a synthesis of that movement’s general tendencies into a grand philosophical statement. This shares with the films of Hong Sang-soo a willingness to confront characters at their most needy and short-sighted; with Im Sang-soo’s work (and Lee’s own Oasis) a righteous anger at South Korea’s ostracizing of social outcasts; and with Park Chanwook and Bong Joon-ho an unsettling depiction of violence that emerges fluidly from dramatic development.
What elevates Secret Sunshine is the universal nature of Lee’s perspective. Shin-ae (played by the great Jeon Do-yeon, who won the Best Actress prize at Cannes for this film) learns of unconditional love, attempts to apply herself to some meaningful work, suffers horrible (but not implausible) tragedy, and is forced—for the sake of her sanity—to find some spiritual doctrine that makes sense of her experience. It is a movie about capital-L Life, no less than Terrence Malick’s recent masterwork, and Lee’s patient, unyielding compassion proves just as overwhelming as Malick’s operatics.