This was reviewed by saying that it was South Korea's entry for a Best Foreign Film Academy Award, and that it is really good [despite being three years old and only released in America now]. What I skipped over in the review, which I see as I look back now, is that it is also one of the more emotionally-harrowing and devastatingly depressing movies out there. So be warned!
We open with a shot of a sunny sky with a few dappled clouds through the windshield of a car. Young woman Shin-ae and her son Jun are broken down on their way to Miryang, where they are moving. She is going there because that is the birthplace of her husband, who died recently. The question of what she hopes to gain by living in his birthplace is left hanging. she receives help from Mr. Kim, gregarious local mechanic. She tells him that the name of the town, Miryang, means "Secret Sunshine" in Chinese.
Soon the entire town seems to know she's there and her story. They think she's strange to move there, and assume she must be sad and lonely because her husband is dead. They also see no reason why anyone would purposely move to their town. Shin-ae opens a piano school. The pharmacist's wife offers to give her a book about God's word, assuming that Shin-ae must be sad. Shin-ae realizes that she doesn't know where her son is, and runs inside, looking around from room to room. She finally sits down crying, and you, who have been soaking up the strange tension lurking beneath the surface of all this [such as the several times Jun has wandered off already] start to hink "Okay, here it is, this is when things are going to take a turn," but then Jun sneaks out from behind a garbage can, and before he reaches her, she leaps up and chases playfully after him--she was just play crying and knew he was fine all along. This scene goes about ten miles to demonstrate the closeness of their relationship. The movie continues a while, Shin-ae slowly settling in town and making friends, and at this point I thought the movie was going to be a slow but ultimately triumphant movie about a woman finding a place for herself and probably a new romance in this new town. How wrong I proved to be!
SPOILERS > > >
Now, if you are going to see the movie you probably should not know any of this, because it makes such a sudden change. But you're an adult. So one night Shin-ae goes out for karaoke with her new friends. When she comes out, someone calls her cell phone, but says nothing. She gets home and Jun is gone [I guess she doesn't use a babysitter?]. She gets a call, and we can't hear what he's saying, but we soon surmise that Jun has been kidnapped. Now begins a lengthy and harrowing sequence as Shin-ae gathers all the money she has and arranges to leave it for the kidnapper. We learn only later that she doesn't actually have the money the kidnapper asked for, but the movie lets us watch several things without knowing what they mean, for example, we see a bunch of cut-up magazines the size of bills tied into packets, filling out the bag but below the actual cash. Is she going to try to lowball her son's kidnappers? The movie doesn't tell you for quite a while. Soon the boy's body is found in the reservoir. Not long after, the killer is found and thrown in jail.
I have to say, when you look back from this point in the film, everything including the identity of the killer has been set up beautifully, and you can look back and see clues and details--like the caller that hung up on Shin-ae--were meticulously placed throughout to set up for what has occurred.
Can I tell you a separate little story? So I have a rabbit, and she was sick the day I went to see this film. Now, rabbits almost never get sick [mine hasn't at all in five years] but when they do, it's SERIOUS. She hadn't eaten for a full day and hadn't pooped all the next day, both of which, the rather alarmist rabbit health site I checked just before heading to the movie told me, constitute an [all caps:] "EMERGENCY." So on the whole subway ride down I'm thinking to myself "Should I really be going to this movie? Shouldn't I be turning around ight now and taking the bunny to the emergency room? How will I feel if I get home from this movie and the bunny is dead?" And then I see this movie where the mother leaves her son alone for ONE NIGHT to go out and have a good time--and he's killed. This is NOT the movie I needed to see at that moment! [PS: I took the bunny to the emergency room after I got home from the movie, and, a few force-feedings and finally a giant poop and a few days later, she is back to normal].
So Shin-ae is devastated. She has a few scenes of major emotional distress, then she goes in and asks the pharmacist's wife about her prayer meetings. She goes to a prayer meeting and is screaming in agony as everyone is singing. It's wrenching. Between that and the bunny situation I cried more in this movie than I have in a long time. Next thing we see, she's talking about how happy she is that she was born again! Then she keeps going to prayer meetings and even hosting them in her piano school.And you are sitting there saying "Is this REALLY where this movie is going? Is it going to be about Christian redemption from here on out?"
Throughout all of this, Mr. Kim is at her side, driving her here and there, and making clear that he loves her despite her stated and implicit lack of interest in him.
Okay, here's another chance for you to eschew spoilers, because we're coming up to another twist you may not want to know. Shin-ae decides that she has become so strong in Christ that she is going to go to the prison, visit her son's killer, and forgive him. Everyone warns her against this, but she believes it's what she must do. She brings him flowers. So the big day comes, she sees him face to face and tells him that she has found God and he has given her strength to forgive him. He says 'Oh great, because I'VE found God too, AND HE HAS ABSOLVED ME OF MY SIN.' Ho-HO! Shin-ae essentially shits a brick, and everything she has pulled together in the past few weeks comes unraveling in a heartbeat. Now you thought it was emotionally harrowing before--well just wait!
Shin-ae goes off the deep end. Her new Christian friends aren't that much help, telling her it was too hard for her to forgive [i.e. it's YOUR fault] and that she wasn't strong enough [ditto]. Now Shin-ae essentially declares war on God and her Christian friends, which makes her start to be super fun when she does things like sneak into the back room of a revival meeting and switch the music out with a song that says "Lies! It's all LIES!" or decides to seduce the pharmacist [whose wife initially drew her into the Christian group] and addresses God as the pharmacist is atop her, saying "Do you see?"
It's around then that it dawns on you not to expect any kind of American remake any time soon.
Anyway, it soon turns back to hardcore harrowing and Shin-ae turns on herself, at one point slitting her own wrists and looking up to God and saying "Are you watching? Do you see?" At this point the woman in front of me walked out, despite having made it through 95% of the movie, which I could understand, because it is SO emotionally harrowing, at a certain point you start to think "You know, I just don't need to see this." But we're wrapping up.
Shin-ae is released from the hospital [post suicide attempt], and Mr. Kim takes her home. He holds the mirror for her as she cuts her own hair. In the final shot, we see the breeze catch her hair cuttings and blow them off, into a nearby puddle that lies half in sunshine. And this final shot brings the entire movie--BANG!--into focus.
It's like this: Clipping of hair often symbolizes letting go of the dead things that are holding you down. Shin-ae's hair clippings are blowing away [though it is in no way implied that she is going to be all better now]. Not only that, but they're blowing into the SUNSHINE. The movie has been quite careful throughout about the way it shows sunshine [though one isn't really sure how intentional all this is until this last shot], and seems to convey the idea that regardless of our troubles, the sun keeps on shining, take it in whatever context you may. Also constantly there is Mr. Kim, who emerges as sort of an angel figure who is always right there to help and support Shin-ae, even though she outwardly doesn't want it. Together, it all sums up to a kind of statement about how there is a kind of spiritual presence with us at all times, but there are many ways in which we might not see it, or see it for what it is. And that's it, the movie ends!
< < < SPOILERS END
It's very good, and I'm glad I saw it, and it's beautifully made [as I said, the way tiny little elements seamlessly lock is something to behold], but again, it is QUITE emotionally harrowing and really difficult to sit through. Ultimately I'm glad I did, and I have thought about it many times in the week since I've seen it, but at the same time I don't think it is something anyone HAS to see. You'll get along perfectly fine if you don't, but you'll be taken on quite a harrowing, but rewarding, emotional journey if you do.
If you like. It's very sad and hard to deal with.