Year of Asian Cinema : 3

Since last I posted we've developed quite a list of titles, thanks to your comments and emails and Matt's movie-watching colleagues. I'll try to compile them someplace so you can watch along with us ...
Now, onto no. 3.
  • Secret Sunshine - Lee Chang-dong, 2007
  • viewed on Monday night, September 28, 2009
  • Korean, with English subtitles
Our new movie rental store, like most movie rental stores here in Hong Kong, is tiny and packed to the gills with dvds and vcds. Not arranged or organized in any manner I can discern, finding a particular movie and then figuring out what it's about is tricky, to say the least. Last week I was in there with Finn, trying to get in and out as quickly as possible, and this movie had an interesting cover and had won some awards. It was almost dinner time and Finn was cranky, so even with no plot synopsis, that was good enough for me.

Well. Secret Sunshine is quite a movie to just happen upon. And though I heartily recommend it, I also think it's fair to know what you're in for. That two-sentence plot synopsis I didn't find would have read something like this: "A recent widow moves with her young son back to her husband's hometown to start a new life. Her plans shatter when tragedy strikes, and she turns to religion in her grief."

That tells you right there that any parent is going to have a hard time watching this, and any person of faith is going to be challenged by questions about God's will, forgiveness, grace, and hypocrisy among the faithful. It's intense and emotional, yes, but with a long slow burn rather than a punch in the stomach. We're still thinking and processing, a week later.

Perhaps it's not as gut-wrenching as it could be because it's a Korean film instead of an American one. The slow pace and lack of music just make it feel very real ... and grief, in real life, often takes time to erupt, with plenty of long pauses at the kitchen sink where you forget what you're doing. Matt pointed out that the Asian films we've seen thus far are even lit differently than American ones, with a cool, blue-gray realism, rather than golden-hued sentimentality. (Have you seen The Secret Life of Bees? A beautiful movie, and we love the book, but really, did the entire movie take place at sunset?)

Secret Sunshine's portrayal of Christianity is a fair one, I think. Not entirely flattering, it's not mocking or ridiculous either. The woman, Shin-ae, becomes a Christian as a direct response to her grief, and it's clear she has a lot of work to do emotionally to synthesize her grieving process with her newfound faith. It's not clear, however, that the Christians she knows will be able to help her move beyond simple answers to a more mature understanding, and I kept wishing I could tell her that doubts, struggle and anger with God are as much a part of faith as that blessed assurance is.

The scene that has provoked the most conversation between Matt and I is about forgiveness, and I should warn you now that if you plan to watch Secret Sunshine and you hate spoilers, you should stop reading. Come back after you've seen it and tell me what you think. Really, I don't want to ruin the impact of this scene, and the review digresses into theological ramblings at this point anyway. It's clear that I really just need to talk about this film some more, so please---go watch it and respond!

For the rest of you, Shin-ae decides to convey forgiveness to the man who has harmed her, and said scene is of their conversation. (Alright, so question no. 1 is---did she really need to convey the forgiveness? Could she just forgive him privately but not face him or tell him? She thinks she does need to tell him, at least in part as a witness to God's love, and maybe, deep down, out of a desire for some level of power over him, the power of offering or withholding forgiveness.)

To her surprise, she finds that he too has become a Christian, and that he has received absolution from God and feels at peace. She has the response that any of us would have, I think, and resents this. Clearly she's not ready for him to feel peace, not when her pain is still so raw. Nor is she thrilled to have even this power taken away as well.

If we are to take him at his word that he has truly become a Christian, which is really all we can do, then we have to accept that he's in the same position that she is, spiritually speaking. Both in psychological torment, both need immediate relief, both find relief in religion. And as she feels a need to forgive, he feels a need for forgiveness. After their conversation, we are left wondering if the forgiveness was real---both what she offered and what he felt from God. Did the fact that she still wanted him to feel some pain mean she wasn't really ready to forgive? Did the fact that he already seemed free of pain or guilt mean that he hadn't really faced what he did, and thus maybe God's forgiveness of him wasn't real?

I see forgiveness as more of a process than an event, and this understanding shapes my view of this scene. Her forgiveness was real, just not complete. When anger or pain is still fresh, even the desire to forgive counts. And even though it wasn't too early to want to forgive, it probably was too early to see him. She'll need to forgive again and again, as new layers of anger and grief emerge. And as for the forgiveness being mixed up with some superiority or desire for power, that's pretty real for us humans.

Likewise, his absolution and peace are real (again, if we take him at his word), much as I hate to admit it. I may think this guy eventually deserves forgiveness (or at least I can accept God's forgiveness of him) but I certainly don't think he deserves peace ... not yet, anyway. God, however, extends grace to all of us, deserving or not. I'm trusting that as time passes and he grows in faith, he will grow in compassion. His understanding of his sin will grow, and he will likewise need to seek forgiveness over and over again. Not because God's forgiveness wasn't complete, but because his own repentence wasn't. Again, forgiveness is more of a process than an event, and God forgives to whatever extent that we can repent. Just as Paul tells us to "work out our salvation in fear and trembling," (Philippians 2:12) we work out our forgiveness, in just as much fear and trembling.

In Secret Sunshine we get to watch some of this working out, and it's not at all clear where Shin-ae will end up. Our preacher this past weekend reminded us that the larger meaning behind the cliche "Amazing grace" is that grace puts us in a maze. It is bewildering, it makes us feel lost and unsure where to go. The lame walk, the poor are fed, and yes, the undeserving get forgiven. Of course, Shin-ae is already in a maze, put there both by random bad luck and intentional violence. She thinks Christianity is her straight path out of that maze, but it just doesn't work that way. As a believer myself, I have every hope that somehow God's peace will sustain her through the coming hard days, and will be there, waiting, when she is ready for it.

1 comment:

Christa said...

Hey, I just got around to reading this and ordered Wayne to go find this movie for us -- I only skimmed the "spoiler" section. He, being more linear than I, adamantly refused my helpful out-loud reading of your blog after the first couple of paragraphs, haha.

Anyway, thanks, I'm looking forward to it!