Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Adam Hartzell: Secret Sunshine

Still buried underneath projects, I don't have time to write much; just a reminder that Max Ophuls' Lola Montès opens at the Castro and elsewhere for a week- make sure to catch it at least once before it has to make room for the eagerly-anticipated Milk. Since the film deals so sharply with the way human memory (and collective memory a.k.a. history) colors and exaggerates the truth, it's crucial not to let this spectacle just roll through to the next town; an eventual DVD release is not likely to truly bring out the contrast between the pageantry and fakery on display, and the real emotions felt by the lead character, a contrast so often expressed visually by Ophuls.

Starting with tonight's screenings, there are eighteen more showings of Lola Montès at the Castro and more in other parts of Frisco Bay. But if I could point a cinephile to one single screening that I'd recommend most highly for the coming week, it would be last year's Korean drama Secret Sunshine, possibly the best new film I've seen all year. It has screened only here in Frisco early in the year, and it gets its encore appearance this Sunday courtesy of the San Francisco Korean American Film Festival. Adam Hartzell has more to say:


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Traveling around the world while sneaking in film festivals taking place in South Korea between my work stints in Manila, I knew I was riding a wave that couldn’t last for very long, just like South Korean cinema was riding its own time-limited wave of popularity. Financial concerns along with family obligations and work commitments would eventually ground my cinematic globe-trotting. As a result, this South Korean film aficionado has been more incommunicado on the South Korean film scene. I went from assisting the folks at KIMA (Korean in Media Arts) in putting together their San Francisco Korean Film Festival in 2007 to having to fully relinquish responsibilities I had with the festival. Thankfully, the hard-working students and volunteers have done more than fine without me and have put together a lovely weekend of contemporary South Korean films for the cinephiles of San Francisco.

The festival opens and closes at The Richmond district’s 4 Star Theatre, whereas other screenings take place at the Coppola Theatre on the San Francisco State University campus or at the Academy of Art. Opening the festival this Friday is Director Lee Hae-young and Lee Hae-jun’s debut Like a Virgin, a film Darcy Paquet of Koreanfilm.org says transcends coming of age sports movie constraints through its "detailed characterizations and intricate humor". But I’m here at Brian’s blog to add to the innumerable words of praise written about the closing film, Lee Chang-dong’s masterful Secret Sunshine.

Simply put, Secret Sunshine is about loss and suffering without the anchors of a religion/philosophy to impose a narration upon that loss. This is one of the rare South Korean films to explicitly show Korean Evangelical Christian traditions.
At the screening I attended presented by the San Francisco Film Society in early January of this year, Director Lee said he wasn’t intending to critique those traditions in this film. He is honest to that claim, staying away from
ridiculing, a la Bill Maher, the personal relationships with Jesus Christ that Evangelical traditions espouse. We merely watch a young mother attempt to deal with her loss without a sustained belief in supernatural interventions. We the godly audience are as helpless to offer succor as is the local gentleman who attempts to woo this un-woo-able soul at one of the most untouchable times of her life. Both Jeon Do-yeon and Song Kang-ho are excellent in their roles, and one can see easily why Jeon was selected as best actress by the 2007 Cannes jury for this role.

The film came to me at the right time in my life, since I was preparing for my own loss, my father’s death from cancer. Unrestrained by religion myself, I was working through accepting the loss of someone important to me without narratives frames already worked out for me ahead of time by a religious tradition. In this way, Secret Sunshine’s unrelenting turn face forward into the burning tragedy and unfairness of it all was much appreciated. Of course, I wouldn’t recommend this film for people who aren’t in a space where they can fathom the loss of a family member. But for those of you who approach cinema as your church alternative, experiencing the tactility of light from a knowable source, laying its hands upon your eyes as you sort through your own suffering, Secret Sunshine is the homily you come to the movies for. It is a film that will leave you raw, while still enabling you enough strength to reclaim the tough skin that helps you carry on with every new day outside the theater walls.

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