Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a bi-weekly column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles. This entry spotlights the award-winning performance given by Jeon Do-yeon in Secret Sunshine.
Less than halfway through Chang-dong Lee’s Secret Sunshine, tragedy strikes for single mother Shin-ae (Jeon Do-yeon). Her young son, Jun, is discovered dead in a river after having been kidnapped and held for ransom. Shin-ae has spent the first act of the film already grieving the death of her husband. Now she is forced to learn a new kind of grief altogether.
Grief is never straightforward. Jeon capitalizes on this fact in her standout performance, moving effortlessly from intense, guttural sadness to delusional happiness, then to psychosis and back again in an exhausting, whiplash-inducing emotional rollercoaster. But between the screams and the physical collapse, the strength of Jeon’s performance lies in its quietest moments.
Before the death of her son, Shin-ae’s everyday movements are bold and almost theatrical. In public, she is generally restrained and quiet, but when she lets go, she really lets go. Jeon expresses this through bold, fearless gestures. When she comes home one day and cannot find Jun, she melts to the ground and begins to wail in a way that is almost comically childlike. When attempting to impress her new neighbors, she lies about her wealth and drinks and laughs in a way that is jarring and unlike the Shin-ae we have become familiar with. She stumbles through the streets like a teen who has had a few too many.
After Jun is cremated, Shin-ae’s mother-in-law screams at her and tells her that she brings death wherever she goes. Shin-ae responds with a blank, lifeless stare, and the reaction is surprising, to say the least. What makes this response so noticeable is the opposition between pre- and post-trauma Shin-ae. And every time she responds to a tragedy with a cold, withdrawn expression, the intense body movements offer more of a pay-off. They give us a clearer indication of the transformation that grief puts its subject through.
Yet, to suggest that Jeon’s expression is ever “blank” in Secret Sunshine would be a dire misinterpretation. Take, for instance, a moment after Shin-ae claims to have found “God.” She is seemingly in a state of bliss as a result and decides to visit Jun’s killer in prison and forgive him. Despite warnings from her friends, Shin-ae is optimistic that this visit will give her all the more reason to believe in God. But when Jun’s killer tells her that he, too, has found God, and, what’s more, that God has forgiven him, Shin-ae suddenly meets the depths of despair. God has forgiven her son’s killer before she has had a chance to. Now she has to reconcile with another massive loss in her life, that of God. She hardly says a word, but instead, her face falls slightly, and she merely looks at the killer. In this subtly hopeless stare lies the turning point of the film.
One of the many strengths of Jeon’s performance, which earned her the best actress prize at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, is that the core of her character never changes. Not in her desperation for popularity in the beginning, nor in the frantic grief, nor in the blind faith, nor in the dull and depressed anger. When she makes the transformation into faith, she’s smiling, happy. She says that believing in God feels like “falling in love.” But her smile is never entirely convincing. We know that she is in pain. Her face is happy, but her eyes are not. Although Shin-ae lies to herself, Jeon refuses to lie to the camera.
Indeed, Shin-ae is only able to maintain this facade in public. After a meeting with her religious friends, she returns to her home and turns her back to the camera. She is alone; for a moment, she is even shielded from the audience. When the camera cuts to a medium close-up of her face, we see tears welling up in her eyes. She says the Lord’s Prayer but is unable to keep the tears from rolling down her cheeks. It’s just us and her now.
Just as it is again later in the film when she convinces a married man to have sex with her to “get back” at God. The scene is not between Shin-ae and the man. As she gazes up at the sky and speaks with God, she by extension speaks with the audience. She whispers something at the sky that is, at first, impossible to make out. But we feel her sentiment, and it doesn’t even really matter what she is saying because her eyes tell us precisely the pain that she is feeling.
A similar moment occurs when she hijacks the audio at a religious meeting and plays rebellious music. As she walks away, her expression is blank: she does not need to look proud or angry because the action speaks for itself. Jeon finds similar power in gesture when she throws a rock at the window of the house she used to praise God in. We can hardly see her through the crack in the window, but, like when she convinces the man to cheat on his wife with her, and when she plays the music, we know exactly what she’s thinking and feeling.
Jeon’s performance shows us early on in Secret Sunshine that Shin-ae is a character subject to dramatic changes — from lost, to heartbroken, to blissful, to angry, and back again. She seems to feel it all. But, in her performance, Jeon goes beyond these emotions, and in a tearful prayer, a gaze at the sky, or a blank stare, she gives us powerful insight into the core of Shin-ae.