I had a pleasant Sunday afternoon last weekend catching up on a screening of Secret Sunshine, the feature film from South Korean director Lee Chang-dong. Jeon Do-yeon (Scandal) plays the mother of a small boy whose life becomes hedged around with grief and recrimination after she moves to a provincial Korean city near Pusan. Though Jeon won best actress in Cannes, the film has only played three times in the UK – twice at the London Film Festival and once, a year later, at the Korean Film Festival. This is where I finally managed to see it, at the Barbican, introduced by programmer and critic Tony Rayns.
Lee Chang-dong is a fascinating man. He began life as a teacher, then went to France to write a novel. At the age of forty Lee began to make movies (after an apprenticeship with Park Kwang-su, who filmed one of his stories). Before you know it he was made Arts and Culture minister for South Korea, serving two years before being forced out by a US trade insistence on a lowering of the quota system, which, as in France, subsidizes locally-made films by taking a small percentage of the box-office takings.
Lee's film Oasis won best director prize in Venice in 2002, but it’s taken until now to follow that film up. Secret Sunshine is as morally refined as a Bresson film; its almost made from beaten metal. Jeon, in almost every scene, plays the mother who, dealing with disaster after disaster, finally turns to religion before, like Larry Flynt, becoming disgusted by it. It’s a soft howl of a performance.
As a film it’s partly an attack on organized religion where the main character, it has been suggested, may herself be God. Yet her rage at God is extraordinary. In one of her most throwaway scenes, where become mad with rage and incomprehension against her train of suffering, she looks up into the heavens, seeming to transmit defiance with every ounce of her being. In another section of the film, her sabotage of a Christian rally, playing a CD over the PA system with a Korean pop song crooning ‘lies! lies!’ is also something to behold. By joining her local Christian group, she discovers a congregation who like to talk about suffering, but have no real comprehension of what suffering entails. Indeed, they are spooked when they see it. There’s something devilish in suffering, not the divine purging of legend.
My favorite Lee Chang-dong film remains Peppermint Candy (1999), one of the unheralded masterpieces of South Korean cinema. While his compatriots go for blood and mayhem, sober and serious Lee examines issues of the wholly abandoned, exploring, at the same time, the idea that life is somehow fundamentally evil. These are dread films from the world of the Demiurge. Hope is something that happens in Hollywood films, and in religion, and there can be something pitiless about hope. Yet these films are not hopeless.
Not a single Lee Chang-dong film has received even a one-screen release in the UK (even the US released Oasis, as did France, Japan and the Netherlands). He’s unknown here. You’ll not find him (or for that matter any other serious filmmaker) discussed on BBC arts shows.
It was a stark reminder, if reminding is needed, of the various and complicated blindspots in UK distribution. Films have not turned up that should turn up, films that might get a small audience, that are worthy of discussion on The Late Show (a program that no longer regards film as an art form).
Off the top of my head there's Wen Jiang’s Devils on the Doorstep from 2000, also a Cannes prizewinner, the Russian film Ostrov (on the back burner at Artificial Eye, but hopefully out next summer, a year late). There’s Li Yang’s Blind Mountain (you got it, a Cannes winner). Suo Masayuki’s Japanese courtroom drama I Just Didn’t Do It is an omission (curious fact – his film before that was adapted into the Richard Gere vehicle Shall We Dance)
I could go on, but all I suppose I'm saying is, go see them if you can.
Anyhow, here's the Secret Sunshine Trailer