According to the heroine of Lee Chang-dong’s brittle drama Secret Sunshine, the film’s title refers to the Chinese translation of the name of the provincial Korean village Miryang. Jeon Do-ywon moves to Miryang with her son after her husband’s death, and sets up shop as a piano teacher in what used to be his hometown. There, she finds the “sunshine” constantly at odds with the “secret.” Many of her new neighbors are devout Christians, who smile at her and want her to know “the world is really filled with happiness,” even if she doesn’t realize it. But they also speak ill of Jeon behind her back, spread harmful rumors, and don’t accept her as one of their own until she joins their church. Once she’s in the fold, Jeon discovers that much of the congregation has ulterior motives for their purported piety, and the more Jeon pursues her own faith, the more the contradictions and hypocrisies drive her mad.
Secret Sunshine’s plot hinges on a shocking first-act twist that would be more effective if Lee didn’t spend the first 40 minutes foreshadowing it, and the movie as a whole runs a little long, belaboring its point. But from start to finish, Lee crafts scenes that show how people lie to themselves, in ways both subtle and deeply disturbing. Jeon gives a powerful performance as a woman who refuses to see the flaws in her late husband, yet can’t stop seeing the flaws in everyone around her, or in herself. And the split in her psyche is exacerbated by Song Kanh-ho, a socially awkward local mechanic who tries to help Jeon’s business by lying about her credentials, and who undergoes his own conversion to Christianity so he can have more excuses to get close to her. Secret Sunshine is a frequently beautiful film with a cold, dark heart, and Song establishes what’s most unnerving about it in the opening minutes, when Jeon asks what life is like in Miryang, and Song replies, “There’s nothing strange about it… it’s like anywhere else.”