In an ongoing series, TIM WONG scouts for new and elusive films that either have fallen off the radar, or are yet to see the light of day in New Zealand. (contains spoilers)

WITH cheap shots Jesus Camp and Audience of One prolonging religion’s bad rep on screen, Lee Chang-dong’s aptly titled Secret Sunshine, while not quite the positive reinforcement, arrives at a more constructive view of Christianity, portrayed here as a faith well equipped to manage and absorb debilitating grief. Yet for all the love and rejuvenation He offers a distraught mother in the wake of her son’s kidnapping and death, the film never loses sight of God’s mean-spiritedness either: the rationale behind the Lord’s will to taketh away a point of contention for the inconsolable Shin-ae (Jeon Do-yeon). Relocating to her late-husband’s hometown in the hope of starting afresh, she finds only temporary solace; her son discovered face down in a creek after being ransomed and murdered. Jeon, who claimed Best Actress at Cannes for her exhausting performance, hits the right notes of emotional devastation required for any Lee Chang-dong role, even if the uncontrollable wailing at times resembles comedy over tragedy – her hysterical breakdown in the throws of Christian worship a real doozy of born again frenzy. Joining her spiritual journey is the splendid Song Kang-ho; he plays a mild mechanic whose dysfunctional courtship both confirms him as Korea’s most interesting thesp, and provides the film with an alleviating sense of humour.

Lee, a novelist turned filmmaker turned Minister of Culture – now back behind the camera – demonstrates a literary command over proceedings, with the structural integrity of the film never in doubt. But unlike the hermetically sealed Peppermint Candy and Green Fish, Lee’s hiatus has given rise to a less rigid translation of the script, and Secret Sunshine is allowed to wander – at least tonally – between humanism, cynicism, and classically Korean melodrama. Form also compliments function, with naturalistic visuals unhindered, open-ended, and appropriately subdued minus the cute devices of Lee’s previous films (save for the final shot of patterned sunlight which recalls the shadows-on-tapestry motif in Oasis). Adapted from a story by Yi Chong-jun, there’s also relief in the knowledge that Secret Sunshine found the right director; Yi’s abduction treatment conceivably another transgressive vengeance fantasy in the hands of a cowboy like Park Chan-wook. As Korean filmmakers persist with high-pitched, bloodthirsty stylisations of retribution, the key is not to overlook the quieter touchstones that emerge every year – films festival programmers in this country seem to have trouble securing. Secret Sunshine, admittedly, is anything but muted, and possesses a violent, anguished soul. Like all Lee Chang-dong films though, it emits light in the strangest of places, and is grounded in a hopeful, human reality, histrionics notwithstanding. Having completed his civic duty, may he continue to make movies, and may they find their way downunder – Secret Sunshine included.