Sustained throughout its considerable running time by Jeon Do-yeon’s finely detailed perf as a young widow starting over in an anonymous South Korean town, “Secret Sunshine” is an ambitious, almost novelistic pic by writer-helmer Lee Chang-dong (“Peppermint Candy”) that ultimately fails to dramatize its lead character’s conflicts in cinematic terms. Credit amassed by pic’s slow-burning beginning and interesting mid-section is dissipated by a long final act in which the air is let out of the bag. Tightening by at least 20 minutes or so would make “Sunshine” a brighter bet for offshore niche release.
Lee Shin-ae (Jeon) is a widow in her early 30s who’s left Seoul with her young son, Jun (Seon Jeong-yeob), to make a new life in the southern town of Miryang (pic’s Korean title, literally meaning “Secret Sunshine”). When her car breaks down on the outskirts, the boss of an auto repair shop, regular guy Kim Jong-chan (Song Gang-ho), comes out to lend a hand.
Shin-ae, who gave up a promising future as a concert pianist when she married young, starts up a piano school for kids but immediately finds Miryang is not quite the clean break she’d hoped for. Without overdoing it, script succinctly sketches the town’s gossipy substratum beneath the locals’ smiles; more direct is the attempt of a local pharmacist to recruit Shin-ae to Jesus after hearing of her “tragedy.”
Jong-chan tries to interest Shin-ae and her visiting brother, Min-gi (Kim Yeong-jae), in buying a piece of land, another overture she politely slides out of. Min-gi suspects Jong-chan has other motives and, before leaving, tells him bluntly that he’s not Shin-ae’s type.
At the 40-minute mark, Shin-ae’s new life is shattered when Jun is kidnapped and later found murdered. The perp is found and arrested — how is never explained — and Shin-ae, now at her most fragile, agrees to attend one of the Christians’ meetings. Jong-chan, as always, tags along.
Jeon’s performance really clicks into gear here, as she lets out her accumulated sorrow and frustrations and feels “reborn.” In a difficult transition that few other South Korean actresses could have made convincing, she becomes a 100% zealot, even deciding to meet her son’s murderer (Jo Yeong-jin) in prison to “forgive” him.
However, the result of that meeting sets her on a 180-degree path that puts her at odds not only with the whole Jesus crowd but even tests the devoted Jong-chan.
It’s here the film starts taking on water, in a long final act that incrementally charts Shin-ae’s withdrawal from society but loses dramatic momentum in a succession of basically repetitive sequences. At no point does her plight, detailed from an Olympian height by Lee’s script and direction, become truly involving.
Lee’s previous three features (“Green Fish,” “Peppermint Candy,” “Oasis”) have all given his thesps center stage but often seemed more like filmed novels than cinematically imagined movies. (The fine “Candy,” with its elaborate structure, least of all.) Jeon’s convinced playing — a trademark of the chameleon actress (“Happy End,” “No Blood No Tears”) — keeps “Sunshine” watchable but can’t inject real tension and drama on its own.
On screen almost the whole time, Jeon carries the pic virtually singlehandedly. Despite being South Korea’s hottest actor of the moment, Song (“The Host”) basically provides light relief with his bemused Jong-chan, forever accompanying Shin-ae’s twists and turns. Character has no background or emotional arc, only behavioral tics.
Largely handheld, widescreen lensing by Jo Yong-gyu is fine, whether drawing the anonymous nature of the small town or closely following the performances in invisible style. More music would have been a benefit, though a second visit to the editing table even more so.