I understand that claiming something to be the greatest film performance I have ever seen is a heavy statement. However, at this point in my film viewing life I think I have found such a skillfully acted performance deserved of this claim. Much to my surprise, this discovery did not come from a Oscar winning performance nor did it come from some brilliant performance from a Classic Hollywood film. Instead, it came from a Korean film made only five years ago, and one produced independently nonetheless. Chang-dong Lee's Secret Sunshine contains a performance so ranged and realized that I sincerely found myself thinking I was watching a documentary and not a piece of narrative filmmaking. Delivered by Do-yeon Jeon, the film is something so unbelievably visceral and honest that the single performance consumes the entire film without thinking twice. Fortunately for viewers, Lee plays into this consumption and centers his film around Jeon's craft, allowing his other actors to simply exist behind her and only interjecting moments of cinematic provocation as subtle reminders that Jeon's character, despite her magnitude, only reflects a very tiny portion of a larger world.
Secret Sunshine centers on one Shin-ae (Do-yeon Jeon) a thirty something woman who has decided to relocate herself and her son from the bustling city of Seoul, to the small province of Miryang, after the untimely death of her husband. There she intends to open a piano school, to pursue her dreams of playing piano, which we are led to believe were cut short after the birth of her son. Shin-ae is clearly at a loss for trying to place herself within this suspicious city and seems to only find assistance from a single auto-repairman named Jong-chan (Song Kang-ho), who clearly has desires to be with Shin-ae. Although things are by no means perfect within the small town, Shin-ae manages to find comfort for her and her son, despite being proselytized at and condemned for her citified ways. It is not until her son suddenly goes missing that her world turns upside down, she spirals into a depression, which is only exacerbated by the discovery of his dead body floating in a nearby river. What makes matters worse is that the killer was the child's own teacher, an unassuming man who Shin-ae had shared drinks with only days before the boy's disappearance. Shin-ae seems destined to exist in a dark state of anger, until she decides on a whim to enter a church prayer service. Here she finds a sort of cathartic salvation and turns into a loyal Christian. The whole time Jong-chan follows Shin-ae with the hopes of winning her over, even playing along with her newly found religious devotion. Shin-ae quickly climbs the ranks of the church and is seen as one of its brightest members, particularly at the point when she agrees to visit her son's killer and forgive him for his actions. Upon reaching the prison and meeting with the man, she is bewildered to discover that he too has found the salvation of the lord and has already received his forgiveness. Enraged and disillusioned Shin-ae separates herself from the church and falls even deeper into depression, eventually attempting suicide. At this point, the film returns Shin-ae to Miryang after a stint in a psychiatric ward and after a run-in with the killer's daughter, Shin-ae decides to return home and cut her hair. In a poetically symbolic moment, her hair falls to the ground and lands in a puddle to the side of her chair, the screen fading to black reminding viewers of the temporal and fleeting nature of human existence, no matter how enthralling it may seem.
Do-yeon Jeon's performance in this film is one for the ages. As an actress, she is asked to move between not only various emotions, but various philosophical states of mind as well. From a stoic single mom with hard-lined atheist views to a lost motherless child with blind faith, Jeon plays each part seamlessly and with such precision that it is damn near impossible not to become lost in her character alone and overlook the rest of the film entirely. Despite this, Chang-dong Lee does manage to captivate viewers with the remainder of the narrative as well, always placing other characters directly behind Jeon to allow for their reactions to pass through in a spectral like manner, almost suggesting how those viewing the film should react to each of Jeon's subtle acting shifts. Furthermore, the director cleverly relies on the diagetic world around him to play up on the reality that is her performance, in days of old (or the trailer for this film) a heavily emotive soundtrack and jump cuts would have been used to express Shin-ae's deteriorating mental state in a melodramatic fashion. Lee avoids such methods and simply allows the camera to capture Jeon's performance in its slow, yet burning pace. At times, Lee does nothing more than cut the camera to a scene of the small province or to a shot of clouds floating in the daytime sky as a means of pondering for the viewer, but also as a reminder that like the world, a characters existence within a film is only one aspect of a much larger picture. As such, Jeon's performance as glorious as it may be fits beautifully into a expertly crafted film and as such allows it to organically grow as one of the best performances I have ever seen, which also happens to exist within an excellent film, something that is usually not the case.
Own Secret Sunshine, Do It!