Saturday, November 3, 2007
Daylight, or Miryang
There are a lot of valiant, difficult films about working through (After Life and Maborosi [Kore-eda], Blue [Kieslowski], The Eel [Imamura], Rosetta [Dardennes], The Sheltering Sky [Bertolucci]), some of which have come up here before. Lee Chang-Dong’s Secret Sunshine (2007) seems like a limit, as it considers a catastrophe that resists all response. At the same time, the disaster won’t stay traumatic, in the territory where we would lose track of it, although the protagonist, a young woman (Jeon Do-yeon) who has moved to a town named Miryang (“secret sunshine” in Chinese, she says), does slip into oblivion at times. You might say she tries oblivion, but she’s not very good at it. The effect comes off as explosive for narrative and genre too, which keep trying to restart as conventions serially founder. The rules that guide our expectations are revealed to be mere wishes: the rule that someone who has just suffered a big loss will not suffer another, that possibilities the film makes fun of will not be entertained seriously, that things that have become serious will not be made fun of again, etc.—they turn out to have nothing to do with experience, inside or outside the film, where there is no contradiction. The (positive) reception of Secret Sunshine includes a lot of comments like “I thought it was going to happen sooner”; “there’s something incomplete about the film despite its length” (the latter from the New York Times review of the Cannes screening); or, atypically, in the profit-obsessed Variety, "ultimately fails to dramatize its lead character's conflicts in cinematic terms. Credit amassed . . . is dissipated"). The audience finds it’s ready to joke around after the most graphic expressions of primal grief, things out of Sophocles; it grasps continually at the most naïve reassurances. There’s no sadism at all in the film’s operations; this is not even a “dark” film. Rather, its good nature perpetuates suspension, and if anything is all too bright, like the disposition of the smitten mechanic (Song Gang-ho) who follows Jeon Do-yeon around, and which may be made of gold or just of teflon. One mark of Lee’s going beyond the tolerable is the surfacing of religious belief, a remedy beyond reason, which in turn breaks up without evaporating entirely—a pattern that duplicates the paradox of bearing the unbearable without quite losing consciousness or gaining mastery. Here Lee responds to feminine-religious melodramas such as Stromboli and Breaking the Waves that identify narrative narrowing, especially of the feminine life, with divine irresistibility. God is in the light, as a Christian woman in the film keeps saying, and light makes film images, but "light" is also only in the name, and in the name of the film called Miryang. The film signs that it can offer only words and appearances, and abandons the audience to its thoughts.
Images: Jeon Do-yeon and Song Gang-ho in Lee Chang-Dong's Miryang, 2007