By Dennis Lim
When the prizes are handed out tomorrow, it’s almost inconceivable that Lee Chang-dong’s “Secret Sunshine” will not be among the major winners. This superbly controlled melodrama is Lee’s return to directing after a four-year stint as the South Korean minister of culture and tourism. Engrossing and unpredictable, his new film is best experienced with as little foreknowledge as possible, so the briefest of synopses will have to suffice. A young widow moves to her late husband’s hometown of Miryang (the literal translation provides the English title); about a third of the way in, a catalyzing event propels her character and the film into entirely unexpected directions.
Jeon Do-yeon works through a remarkable spectrum of emotions in the lead role, and she has fine comic/empathic support from “The Host” star Song Kang-ho, as a local mechanic who becomes her befuddled suitor. Without getting too much into specifics: It’s a film that both acknowledges the absurdity and understands the necessity of its heroine’s actions. The idea of religion-as-salvation is handled even-handedly, with crucial skepticism and an absence of condescension.
There are unavoidable shades of “A Woman Under the Influence,” but Lee’s close study of a female psyche in crisis also recalls the unblinking directness (if not the aesthetic strategies) of two mid-’90s films: “Safe” and “Breaking the Waves.” The film’s secret weapon is its disarming plainness a transparency that confers a kind of grace and belies an emotional complexity. It’s about as limpid and unexploitative a film as you could imagine on the subject of human suffering.
“Secret Sunshine” is a near unanimous favorite among the critics. James Gray’s “We Own the Night,” on the other hand, provoked a (wholly unwarranted) chorus of boos at its first press screening. Only Gray’s third film in a dozen years, this heartfelt cop movie set against a late ’80s Brooklyn backdrop finds the talented, underemployed director of “Little Odessa” and “The Yards” still mining the turf he apparently knows best: immigrant, blue-collar, outer-borough New York.
Pitting noble, hard-bitten cops against drug-dealing, club-owning Russian mobsters, “We Own the Night” could be accused of a certain upright conservatism, portraying as it does pre-Giuliani NYC as a crime-infested Gomorrah. (That same critique, substituting Reagan for Giuliani, could also apply to the Coens’ “No Country for Old Men,” very pointedly set in 1980.) Still, setting aside the sometimes creaky plot machinery, there’s plenty to recommend this film: a fine Joaquin Phoenix performance; three brilliant action sequences (including a car chase in a convincing digital downpour); and some potent ideas about class aspiration and immobility. The main complaints have been about the predictability of the plot, but Gray is plainly aiming for the emotional intensity and grand inevitability of Greek tragedy. Grave, earnest, not especially interested in humor or irony, he may not be a fashionable filmmaker, as the critical response has confirmed. In fact, he’s something of an anachronism; at his best, though, he’s also one of the few true classicists working in American movies.
[Photo: James Gray’s “We Own the Night,” Columbia Pictures, 2007]