“Secret Sunshine” — a 2007 film by Lee Chang-dong now making a tardy but welcome American debut — takes place in a South Korean town called Miryang, described by one of its residents as “just like every other place.” This is true enough, and Mr. Lee is certainly attentive to the routines and rhythms of everyday life. But there is nothing ordinary about this movie, or about the story it tells.
On its surface the transparent and horrifying tale of a mother’s grief, “Secret Sunshine” has the kind of emotional depth and thematic complexity that rewards repeat viewings. Mr. Lee, a distinguished novelist before he turned to filmmaking (he has also served as South Korea’s minister of culture and tourism), composes the cinematic equivalent of prose that is clear, elegant and lyrical. The experience of watching his films is not always pleasant: more than a few scenes in “Secret Sunshine” (and in the more recent, equally amazing “Poetry,” a highlight of this year’s New York Film Festival) are excruciating in their raw depiction of souls in torment. And yet his quiet and exacting humaneness infuses even the most dreadful moments with an intimation of grace.
At its most literal, the title of “Secret Sunshine” refers to an old meaning of the word Miryang. At the beginning of the movie, Lee Shin-ae (Jeon Do-yeon), recently widowed, moves to the town with her young son, Jun. Miryang was her husband’s childhood home, but Shin-ae is nonetheless very much a stranger. Befriended by Kim Jong-chan (Song Kang-ho), an amiable mechanic who tows her broken-down car into town, she goes about the business of making a new life for herself and Jun. She gives piano lessons, chats politely with local shopkeepers, and stoically endures the nosiness and coldness of some of the townspeople while cautiously welcoming the kindness of others. The place seems, for a while, to live up to its name, insofar as its warmth is not always immediately apparent.
Then something happens that both upends Shin-ae’s fragile sense of control and turns the film from a quiet comedy of provincial life into a tour of parental hell. There are trailers online that make it pretty clear, and a cursory search of what has been written about “Secret Sunshine” since its premiere in Cannes more than three years ago will supply plenty of spoilers. But I’m still reluctant to say too much, since the full impact of this film is perhaps best experienced if its shocks are uncushioned by foreknowledge. Shin-ae, after all, has no idea what horrors await her in Miryang, and Mr. Lee has a remarkable ability to refrain from foreshadowing. The ribbon of his narrative bends and loops, but it does not twist.
In the wake of tragedy, Shin-ae looks for solace in routine — scolding her recalcitrant students with renewed rigor — and then in religion. She begins attending revival meetings at a local evangelical church, embracing its gospel of boundless love and ready forgiveness. But further disappointments and devastations lie in store, as the film, without succumbing to glib cynicism, refuses any easy route toward comfort or redemption.
How do you make a movie about an unbearable experience that is not itself unbearable? The answer will come close to a sturdy and time-tested definition of art, one job of which is to give intelligible and therefore consoling form to the agonies of human life. And therefore, also, to discern within the worst of what people can inflict and endure at least a hint of brighter possibilities. The title of “Secret Sunshine” thus becomes both its moral and a description of its curiously illuminating qualities. Conjuring a picture of absolute darkness, it nonetheless casts a beam of light.
Some of this comes from Ms. Jeon, who started out on South Korean television and who deservedly won the award for best female performance in Cannes for this role. Shin-ae, though a victim of terrible and cosmically unfair circumstances, is not entirely innocent or sympathetic. But of course nobody really is, and the inconsistencies Ms. Jeon finds in her character’s personality are evidence of the coherence of her performance. There is nothing to do but believe in her.
And yet the sheer, fearless intensity Ms. Jeon brings to “Secret Sunshine” would overwhelm the film were it not balanced by Mr. Song’s relaxed geniality. Kim’s relentless pursuit of Shin-ae — always eager to help, he follows her everywhere she goes, including into the arms of the Lord — is sometimes creepy, sometimes pathetic, but it also provides her with a consistent and supportive human presence. Kim is described, in a conversation with one of his friends, as a character more at home in comedy than in melodrama, which describes his role in Shin-ae’s life, and Mr. Song’s in the film, almost too perfectly.
To praise the perfection of “Secret Sunshine” would be to risk misrepresenting its main virtue, which is its attention to minor infelicities and inconveniences as well as to unspeakable crimes and intolerable heartaches. It is a great movie, by a major figure in world cinema.