Let the Sunshine In
Last Thursday morning in Paris, the lineup was announced for the 60th edition of the Cannes Film Festival. The announcement was made by Cannes artistic director Thierry Frémaux during a press conference held in a gilded and mirrored salon of the Hotel de Crillon, located on the Place de la Concorde. Lining the room, in addition to a few hundred mostly French journalists, were reproductions of this year's official festival poster: an Alex Majoli photograph showing Pedro Almodovar, Juliette Binoche, Jane Campion, Penelope Cruz, Gérard Depardieu, Samuel L. Jackson and Wong Kar-Wai all jumping for joy while the great African director Souleyman Cissé lords over them like some great, resplendent god of the cinema.
There will be more announcements in the coming weeks, including those of the films screening in the festival's Director's Fortnight and Critic's Week sidebars, as well as the annual Cannes Classics program consisting of newly rediscovered and/or restored movies from cinema's past. But for now, the most significant news, at least for those of us who dwell on the other side of the Atlantic, would appear to be that America — if not necessarily Hollywood — will have a strong presence on the Croisette next month.
Of the 22 films screening in Cannes' most prestigious section, the official competition, five are the work of U.S. filmmakers, though only two of those, David Fincher's Zodiac and the Coen Brothers' No Country For Old Men, were financed by major studios. Rounding out Cannes' Yank contingent will be the latest films from two past Palme d'Or winners — Quentin Tarantino's Grindhouse-extracted Death Proof, in a special longer version prepared especially for the festival, and Gus Van San't Paranoid Park — along with We Own the Night, the third feature film by an American director (James Gray) who has thus far amassed a stronger following in France than on his home turf.
Yet, as Frémaux noted just before rattling off the list of competition movies, "It's becoming more and more difficult to determine the nationality of films." And so, what country will ultimately lay claim to the festival's opening-night selection, Wong Kar-Wai's My Blueberry Nights, which was shot on location in New York, California and Nevada by a Hong Kong director working with a mostly British and American cast (including singer Norah Jones in her big-screen debut)? Or to Le Schaphandre et le Papillon, which finds the American painter Julian Schnabel directing a French cast in the film version of Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby's memoir about his life after a paralyzing stroke? Or The Man From London, Hungarian director Béla Tarr's long-delayed adaptation of a novel by the legendary French mystery writer Georges Simenon, with Tilda Swinton in a starring role? Perhaps most intriguingly, there is Silent Light, the latest from Mexican cinema bad boy Carlos Reygadas (Japón, Battle in Heaven) — a movie purportedly set among a Mexican Mennonite community and filmed entirely in the Plautdietsch language. Indeed, it may be that the competition lineup for Cannes 2007 can best be summed up by the title of a prize-winning film from Cannes 2006: Babel.
Of course, most of those movies will remain tightly under wraps until the Cannes curtain rises on May 16. But in Paris last week, I was able to attend a small advance screening of one competition entry, and I am happy to report that it is nothing less than superb. The film is called Secret Sunshine and it is the fourth to be written and directed by South Korea's Lee Chang-Dong, whose first three films — Green Fish (1997), Peppermint Candy (2000) and Oasis (2002) — pegged him as one of leading figures in his country's recent cinematic renaissance. Those movies are too little known in America — only Oasis, which told of the unlikely romance between an ex-con and a young woman stricken with cerebral palsy, earned a U.S. theatrical release — but on Lee's home turf, they established the director as that most unusual of cinematic hybrids: an uncompromisingly intelligent, personal filmmaker whose work is also accessible and even appealing to a sizable popular audience, no matter that it lacks bodily dismemberment, elaborate revenge schemes or the consumption of live squids.
Probably Lee's most ambitious and fully realized film yet, Secret Sunshine is that rare movie that possesses that fullness and complexity of a great novel — one that keeps revealing new layers to us the deeper we move into it, and where it is as difficult to predict what will happen ten minutes in as it is two hours later. When the movie begins, it suggests an Asiatic Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, with a recent widow (Jeon Do-yeon) and her young son moving from Seoul to the small town of Milyang (the film's Korean title), where the woman hopes to establish herself as a private piano tutor. En route, her car breaks down and when the local Milyang mechanic (The Host star Song Kang-ho) comes to her aid, we see the first sparks of a hesitant romance between two shy, lonely people. And so Secret Sunshine proceeds for a while, as the widow adjusts to her new surroundings and takes stock — prompted by the evangelical proselytizing of a born-again pharmacist — of her faith (or lack thereof) in some higher power. Then, abruptly and without warning, the film becomes something of a thriller, and some time after that a nearly Bressonian study in human suffering. If it is hard to imagine how one movie could possibly be all of those things (and quite a few others too), it may be even harder to conceive of the agility with which Lee guides Secret Sunshine through these switchblade reversals of comedy and despair, darkness and light. For in the end, the movie is all of a piece and impossible to imagine any other way — a secular hymn to the small triumphs and cavernous tragedies of the everyday, and to our awesome ability to cope.
To say much more would be to compromise the surprises of Lee's film, and surprises at the movies these days are an endangered natural resource. But a few words are owed to the film's remarkable actors, without whom Secret Sunshine might still have remained so many disparate pieces in search of a whole. Song, who is one of the biggest male stars in Korea at the moment, seems to relish playing the sort of taciturn, anti-heroic supporting role that big stars aren't supposed to play at the peak of their careers. (Think George Clooney in Good Night and Good Luck). Jeon, meanwhile, is a revelation — to me, at least, since I haven't seen any of her previous films (although she is said to have been excellent playing an AIDS-stricken waitress in Park Jin-pyo's 2005 drama You Are My Sunshine). On screen in nearly every scene, she is fearless in her navigation of the movie's turbulent emotional currents and gives the kind of un-stylized performance that hardly seems like "acting," slowly revealing to us the extraordinary inner strength and grace of this seemingly fragile, uncertain woman, until it is as if we are beholding a saintly figure cast out of the heavens. This is the kind of performance that great directors inspire in great actors, and it sets a high standard by which all others at Cannes 2007 shall be judged.