Yes, that’s right. Another movie about a woman and her son. For a few weeks, this was the number 2 movie in South Korea behind the third Pirates of the Caribbean movie and the lead was the first Asian to get the Best Actress award at Cannes. Just saying.
Widowed mother Shin-ae is stuck on the road on her way to Miryang, the small town where her late husband was born and where she hopes to live with her young son Jun. Jun is cranky, moreso when she takes him out of the car for some fresh air.
They get help from a local mechanic name Jong-chan. Shin-ae says that knows very little about the town, other than that its name means Secret Sunshine. I wonder if she also knows that her name sounds like shiny if you pronounce it really badly. In any case, Jong-chan tells her that the town is fairly right-leaning, people are leaving (which is why he was so surprised when she told him that he was moving there permanently), and everyone speaks with that weird accent that he has.
What he doesn’t tell her is that he and his three buddies like to (very) casually harass their female colleague about her underwear, but that is basically the first thing that she sees when getting to the car repair shop. Neither woman says anything about it.
Shin-ae walks around the town, posting up advertisements for her piano lessons. She visits a clothing boutique and greets the owner. Apparently, the woman already knows about her. I guess that news of an outsider coming to stay is newsworthy. Shin-ae then makes a well-intentioned, but slightly odd choice to advise the woman to redecorate the front of the building. As Shin-ae sees it, the whole place looks dark and grim, especially when the sun does not shine on it. So redoing part of the store would make it look more cheery and inviting. The owner smiles in that politely resentful manner and Shin-ae is on her way.
Jong-chan is friendlier, actually forging a piano playing award for her and trying to set her up with some big shots when she says something about wanting to buy land for building a house. She does not quite appreciate his willingness to deceive his fellow townsfolk on her behalf. Besides, does he not have other things to do?
So, what brings Shin-ae from Seoul to her late husband’s hometown anyways? She claims that her husband had always wanted to return to Miryang, so that his children could feel real ground. It is not long before a few cracks in the story start to emerge, especially when Shin-ae’s younger brother Min-ki comes to visit.
The first thing that we see him do is notice the award, and Shin-ae admits that she had not played the piano since she got married. Min-ki is simply perplexed as to why she came to Miryang in the first place, given that her late husband had cheated on her. Shin-ae tries to defend his good name without outright denying the accusation. It becomes apparent that Shin-ae had also cut herself off from the rest of her family, particularly her father, though the actual reasons behind this are unclear. Did her family dislike her choice of husband? Was it simply that she had married him when she was too young? Did he knock her up? Was it simply the fallout over the infidelity? Is there something wrong with her? These questions go unanswered for the most part (though there is a brief hint late in the film that is little more than a hint), but one could guess that visiting her husband’s birthplace was the most logical reason that she could give her son for running away from Seoul. As she admits to her brother, what sets Miryang apart from Seoul is that no one knows who she is and she can start over. In one line early in the movie, she is asked where she is coming from and she says that she does not know. Granted, the question is in regards to the highway and not any actual city, but it does suggest that she is trying to forget something. Her remark to the boutique owner initially made her seem like a happy person, but maybe that is a front that she is putting up, an identity that she is trying on for herself in front of strangers.
After a somewhat rocky start with the locals, Shin-ae is able to start over. Her son is in school, she is teaching piano. She has gained a small group of older friends. Jong-chang is still trying to help her out and his attempts to impress her can get a little creepy. Everyone kind of teases him for having such an obvious crush and she jokingly calls him out on his at times as well, but she also tends to go along with it, because why not. Shin-ae is here. She has made a life for herself. Sure, there are some peculiar things, but everything is fine.
And then one day, everything is less than fine.
There is so much that I want to say about this movie, but it is so difficult to do so without spoiling so much. And I definitely do not want to spoil it. I, myself, went into this movie with significantly less information than what I have just provided, and just went along for the ride. This is not to say that the movie has all these super crazy twists that you will not see coming. But this movie most certainly did surprise me many times. There was one narrative thread that I was so sure was going to pay off until the end of the movie came and I realized that that whole thing was all in my head; it was never in the story at all. Given the sudden story shifts, I was so certain that my theory was going to pan out that I completely missed the significance of the movie. Of course, so much time has passed that I no longer even remember what my theory was.
No, the movie has no real twists, per se. What it does have is a series of events that change the entire tone of the story and the behavior of the main character. After all, is not life a series of predictable events that suddenly get overturned by something major or minor? Shin-ae has wrapped herself up in so many identities: wife, mother, piano player, prospective landowner. Sometimes it seems as if she uses these terms to mask who she really is, without quite understanding what significance they have to her or what significance they bestow upon her as a person. She wants to have control over who and what she is, but there are those around her who will not grant her that. When an event or the behavior of other people challenges her identity, she struggles to cope, and sometimes that leads to mistakes, bad decisions, and unfair consequences. In an attempt to find hope, importance, and meaning to her life, she bounces from high to low, until the end when…well…
Oh, dear. It is really hard to talk about this film without spoiling a lot. In fact, if you start watching the movie (which you should), you may notice that I neglected to mention at least two major storylines. This was purposeful, but I wonder if my tiptoeing around them instead of engaging them can color how you anticipate their resolution. Oh, well. In any case, it is not about the twists themselves, but what led up to them, what happened afterwards, and how people (particularly Shin-ae) react to them.
There are a couple of recurring things that I have noticed. There were probably a lot more, but the two that I noticed were the sun and cars. The first shot is of the sun as it is shining down on Shin-ae’s car. Shin-ae often looks up at the sky and talks about the sun a lot. Is she trying to think of the bright spot in times of struggle? The sun keeps shining regardless of what is going on in her life. The focus on the sky and the sun gives a bit of significance to the final shot of the movie, though what that significance is, I cannot say. The first shot of the movie is also of a car. Or, to be more accurate, a 16-second shot of the sky through the car…with no credits. Shin-ae’s car has broken down. Her husband was in a car accident. She occasionally wanders on the street, almost getting hit by cars. She sometimes gets distracted while driving and almost hits a couple of people. Did she cause her husband’s death? It is not said. Maybe it does not need to be said.
There really is so much more that I want to say about this movie, but I really cannot without getting into major spoiler territory and, while that might not necessarily ruin the experience for you, I feel as if I have already said too much. All I can say is that I really hope that you watch this one. It is not necessarily the easiest sit, but it legitimately is a very good one.
WTF ASIA 150: Udta Punjab (India: 2016, approx. 146 minutes)
WTF ASIA 151: All About Lily Chou-Chou (Japan: 2001, approx. 146 minutes)