Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Blu-ray Review | Two Films by Lee Chang-Dong

It is serendipitous that both Secret Sunshine (IFC, 2010) and Poetry (Kino, 2011) should be released on DVD and Blu-ray on the same day. After all, both films were directed by Lee Chang-dong, and both are among the very best films of their respective years.

While they are separate works, they are inexorably connected not only by director, but by tone and thematic content. They make great companion pieces, each film standing on its own while simultaneously complimenting the other.

Both films center around strong female characters whose lives are altered by unspeakable tragedy. In Secret Sunshine, we are introduced to Shin-ae (Jeon Do-yeon), a widow who moves from Seoul with her young son to Miryang, her husband's small home town, where she is immediately the topic of all the gossip. Her one friend is Jong Chan (The Host's Kang-ho Song), a lonely and somewhat bumbling mechanic who takes an immediate interest in her after helping repair her car.

Jeon Do-Yeon as Lee Shin-Ae in SECRET SUNSHINE
Photo Credit: Ida. An IFC Films Release.
Shin-ae immediately begins searching for an investment property, giving the appearance to the villagers that she is a woman of means, which causes even more talk amongst the locals in the sleepy little town. It turns into major trouble, however, when Shin-ae returns home to find that her son, Jun, has disappeared, and that an unknown kidnapper is demanding an impossible sum for his return. Devastated and desperate, Shin-ae turns to religion. In perhaps the film's most powerful scene, Shin-ae wanders into the Koren equivalent of an old-time tent revival, filled with prostrate worshippers. Numb to the world, Shin-ae sits amongst them in silent shock, but their fervor begins to wear on her, and her pitiful wailing soon cuts through the entire room, nearly drowning out the sound of their hymn. She is comforted only by the hand of the kindly pastor on her head. Shin-ae is home.

For a while it seems as though she has found the answer to her grief in God. She throws herself into her newfound religion with the zeal of a child with a new toy. It soon becomes clear, however, that religion does not heal all wounds. When she comes face to face with her son's abductor, she is enraged to learn that he has already found absolution from God, that her moment of righteous forgiveness has been upstaged by the Almighty. Through Shin-ae, Lee explores the simple platitudes and contradictions of Christianity - why its teachings are so comforting to many and so hollow to others. Are its teachings merely pacifying comforts to a wounded human race? Or are they a charlatan's trick distracting people from truly confronting their pain? Or is there, perhaps, something there that only true believers can see? The film is neither a celebration nor a condemnation of religion (though it is clear where Lee's own beliefs lie), instead it searches for answers, questioning and seeking through the eyes of its heroine. In the end he leaves the answer up the audience, in the eye of the beholder, as it were, turning a keen reversal of perception on the audience - the film can be different things to different people and be equally effective in any of its interpretations.

Poetry (click here to read my original review), on the other hand, uses its eponymous literary art as a means of solace in the face of tragedy. Its heroine is Mija (the extraordinary Yun Jung-hee), an elderly cleaning lady on the cusp of Alzheimer's who discovers that her loutish grandson has committed an unspeakable crime. As in Secret Sunshine, Mija is told by the parents of his partners in crime that she must pay up in order to keep their transgression out of the public eye and out of police hands in order to protect their children from what would be a life-destroying prison sentence. It is a sum that Mija could never hope to raise, and she finds her escape in a poetry class that is teaching her to look at the world through fresh eyes.

Mija is at first baffled by her teacher's instruction. After all, an apple is an apple, and nothing else. So she goes about her day writing down observations about the world around her, unknowingly creating poetry all along, even as her mind slowly slips away from her.

Yun Jung-hee in Lee Chang-dong's POETRY. 
Image courtesy of Kino International.
This is, perhaps, the greatest shared theme between Poetry and Secret Sunshine. As Mija discovers her unknown poetic talents, she finds something of the divine within, not unlike Shin-ae's own discovery after the denial of her grief eventually leads her away from the well-intentioned self-deception of religion. Though their paths are different, their ultimate revelations are strikingly similar, as if Poetry is somehow a thematic continuation of the ideas begun in Secret Sunshine. In fact, as a film, I actually prefer Poetry, so in that regard it is as if that film is a refinement and perfection of an idea hatched in Secret Sunshine.

Criterion's blu-ray treatment of Secret Sunshine is just as flawless as we have come to expect from the boutique label, even if its extras are a bit sparse. A video interview with Lee Chang-Dong and a behind the scenes featurette seem strangely slight for a Criterion release, even if its liner notes by Dennis Lim are thorough and informative. Its seeming dearth of supplements shouldn't come as too much of a surprise, however, since the film isn't one of their classic releases, and comes as part of their partnership with IFC Films. Kino's blu-ray treatment of Poetry is similarly sparse (if beautifully packaged), featuring a very brief behind the scenes featurette and an interview with actor Ahn Nae-sang, who played Kibum's father in the film. It's a bit disappointing considering the quality of the film, and since it lacks the in-depth liner notes of Secret Sunshine, Criterion gets the edge for its disc presentation, while Kino gets the edge for the film itself. Both films, however, are easily recommendable regardless of their blu-ray supplements. Sometimes the films themselves are the ultimate special feature, and that is absolutely true in both cases. Lee Chang-dong is not only one of the most important voices in Korean cinema, he's one of the most important voices in world cinema period. See these movies and find out why.

SECRET SUNSHINE - ★★★½ (out of four)
POETRY - ★★★★ (out of four)

Secret Sunshine will be released on blu-ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection on Tuesday, August 23.

Poetry will be released on blu-ray and DVD from Kino International on Tuesday, August 23.

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