Secret Sunshine is a great movie for a large number of reasons. The most obvious is the performance at the center of the film: Jeon Do-yeon is in almost every scene, and the range of emotion she must cover is so vast - and her character's reactions so (understandably) extreme - that the viewer might not even noticed how technically complex and subtle her performance is. I don't think it's an exaggeration to call this one of the best performances in the Criterion Collection.
The next thing the viewer might notice about Secret Sunshine is Lee Chang-dong's naturalistic cinematic style. The film's aesthetic is almost ugly in its realism, but Lee's restraint prevents the film from veering into a stylistic representation of "realism." His style isn't about shaky cameras, gritty exposures, or bad lighting. It's a very conscious choice to create a look that carries the viewer into the story without effort, leaving as little as possible between the characters and the viewer.
But what's most impressive about Secret Sunshine is how visceral the experience of watching it is. Even though big things happen in the film (murder, attempted suicide) this is at its core a philosophical drama about loss and emotional rebirth - a small character piece, not a thriller. Despite this, I was on edge for every minute of the film because I had no idea what was going to happen next. Jeon's path from despair to an ending that ostensibly signals that she is ready to move on is constantly surprising. It both engages the viewer and challenges expectations. Yet standing back and looking at the story as a whole doesn't make me see tricks or winding curves in the plot like so many mysteries or thriller one might typically find unpredictable. Instead, the film feels entirely natural and cohesive. It's a remarkable accomplishment for a movie that, while watching it for the first time, seems almost purposefully divergent.
This is where all of these elements finally come together to create an impressive whole. Secret Sunshine is an immersive look at the reality of one woman, and all this technique and craft seem to fall away without any fingerprints left behind. Much has been made of movements like Cinema Verite and Dogma 95, but works produced by these movements have often seemed overly conscious of their style. Much more often, the work that hides its creator's hand is the one that has the most technique, skill, and most of all work behind it. Secret Sunshine is that kind of movie, and it's a great representation of the talent coming out of South Korea, something that will hopefully be better represented in the collection in years to come.