Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 21, 2010

The Rabbit Hole; Secret Sunshine

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:09 pm

Among the 67 screeners I received this year in conjunction with the NYFCO awards meeting was something called “The Rabbit Hole”. After seeing it, I decided to relegate it to a capsule review alongside other commercial detritus from Hollywood. But since it was so closely thematically related to a new Korean movie called “Secret Sunshine”—the grief of a parent for a young child killed senselessly—I decided to say a few more words than it deserves, mainly as a way to draw a contrast between commerce and art. While pundits decides the pros and cons whether America is a dying empire, one thing is for sure. East Asia is far more dynamic when it comes to making movies.

“The Rabbit Hole” was originally written for the stage by David Lindsay-Abaire and won a Pulitzer Prize in 2007. He adapted the play for this year’s film version starring Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckart as Becca and Howie Corbett, who are mourning the death of their young son in an auto accident. While both have been devastated by the event and are attending group therapy sessions with other parents who have suffered such a loss, Becca makes a point of virtually stalking Jason (Miles Teller), the teenage driver of the car. When she finally tracks him down, it is not to berate him but to engage in philosophical discussions about the meaning of life and death. After Jason eventually becomes a bosom buddy of Becca, he gives her a gift: a comic book with drawings of a rabbit descending into a hole, hence the name of the movie.

Her husband has become fed up with her, especially over her refusal to have sex. She is still mourning the loss of their son and has no appetite for the good things in life, other than having soul sessions with the kid who killed him. When her husband learns that she has been hanging out with their son’s killer, he goes ballistic and she returns his vituperation in kind. This stagey catharsis is all that the screenplay needs to resolve the conflict and to tie a red ribbon around the box that this drama by the numbers comes in. While the author clearly intended the play/movie to be a tearjerker, I found myself obsessing over the scaffolding that held the edifice together. The work smacks of a thousand writers workshops and it amazes me that practically nobody else detected its artificiality. While being promoted for an Academy Award by a number of critics, I find it indistinguishable from any number of network TV movies I have seen in the past, back when CBS et al were scheduling such fare rather than reality shows about becoming rich by eating worms or surviving a sting with Donald Trump.

Opening today at the IFC Center in New York, “Secret Sunshine” is the literal meaning of the name of the Korean city Milyang that serves as a backdrop for this powerful drama directed and written by Lee Chang-Dong based on a story by Chong-jun Yi–one of Korea’s most important novelists who died of cancer two years ago. Born in 1954, Lee started out as a novelist himself and served as Korea’s Minister of Culture from 2003 to 2004. Now it might not be fair to compare such people with a hack like David Lindsay-Abaire but it does seem appropriate to point out that such people would never find any equivalent in Hollywood, unless it was the 1930s when people like Clifford Odets and William Faulkner were working for the studios. (Of course, the studios didn’t know what to do with them.)

“Secret Sunshine” begins with an attractive thirty-something woman named Shin-ae (Do-yeon Jeon) sitting by the side of the road leading to Miryang in her car incapacitated by mechanical problems. On the front seat with her is her young son Jun (Seon Jeong-yeob). Help arrives in the form of Jong-chan, a garage mechanic and something of a local bumpkin who drives mother and son into town, gabbing cheerfully all the while about the town’s charms. Song Kang-Ho, one of Korea’s outstanding actors, plays Jong. Cast most often as a “regular guy” from the provinces, he is cast perfectly here. Not professionally trained, he has starred in “The Host“, “The Good, Bad and the Weird” and “Thirst.

For Shin-ae, a piano teacher who once had aspirations to perform in concert, moving from Seoul to Miryang is a little bit like someone moving from Manhattan to a town of 20,000 in Kentucky or Iowa. She has decided to move to Miryang only because her late husband grew up there.

She is more than a little aloof and has no problem striking up a conversation with a local clothing store owner, advising her that her store is drab looking and needs a paint job. Her opinion of Jong-Chan is not much better, advising him repeatedly that she is not interested in dating him. Her brother, in Miryang for a visit, takes Jong-Chan aside and warns him, “My sister is not attracted to guys like you”. This does not deter the mechanic who dotes on her through thick and thin.

And there is plenty of thin awaiting Shin-ae. Not long after she has settled into Miryang and opened up a studio for piano lessons, her son is kidnapped and murdered by a local man who has overheard her talking about purchasing some land to build a home–the same man who gives her son and other local children elocution lessons.

In her grief, she wanders into a revival meeting at Protestant church and is somehow consoled by the idea that God loves her and is responsible for everything that happens in the world. When a pharmacist who owned the shop across the street from her studio had tried to recruit her to the sect before the death of her son, she had the attitude one might expect from a secular-minded resident of Seoul: barely disguised contempt. It takes the death of her son to open her up to becoming “born again”.

Although religion is touted as the opiate of the masses, it eventually begins to lose its narcotic effect on Shin-ae. The failure of anything to replace it, including Jong-Chan’s undying love—as unquestioning in its way like a Christian’s faith—leads to a mounting psychological crisis until the shattering climax of “Secret Sunshine”.

I am not sure who said it—Henry James, perhaps—but the key to all art, from the novel to the screenplay is the creation of powerful and interesting characters that tend to dictate the narrative once their identity is established. In effect, the characters write the work themselves, telling the author what should happen next. In “The Rabbit Hole”, you never lose the sense that the author is moving the characters around like pieces on a chessboard. This is what you might expect from a generation of writers who have been trained in writer’s workshops and guided above all by a desire to win a Pulitzer Prize catering to middle-class sensibilities.

Now a final word about Lee Chang-Dong, who was my introduction to Korean film. Although his “Peppermint Candy” is not available from Netflix, I strongly encourage you to track it down from bittorrent or from any of the Korean DVD vendors on the Internet, none of whom I can vouch for. There are versions available from amazon.com; a new one going for $275 and used for $233! It is a remarkable saga about contemporary Korean politics and society that I reviewed about a decade ago:

Peppermint Candy

Even if it were not a great film, “Peppermint Candy” would be worth seeing just as a guide to the dramatic changes in post-dictatorship South Korea. While ostensibly a Citizen Kane type morality tale about an evil man, it is really a mirror held up to a country whose two main pillars were military/police brutality and worship of mammon.

A group of people in their forties are at a reunion picnic on the bank of a river beneath a railway bridge. Into their midst wanders a man in a business suit who is either drunk or demented, or both. Soon they remember that he is Yongho, a fellow worker from 20 years ago. After encouraging him to take part in their gaiety, he begins to shriek and howl during a Karaoke performance. He climaxes this act by jumping into the river with his business suit on, slapping at the water like a madman. Then he mounts the railroad bridge, where he stands in the middle of the tracks awaiting a train that might come barreling out of a tunnel at any moment. Ignoring their calls to come down to safety, he finally meets an oncoming train with the cry, “I’m going back.”

In a series of flashbacks, we do go back with Yongho and discover what has driven him to suicide. His “Rosebud” is nothing less than the social role imposed by South Korean society in its rise to “success” in the post 1980s. “Peppermint Candy” is mainly an attempt to rip the pleasant facade off this image.

Yongho has decided to kill himself for two reasons. As the president of a small company wrecked on the shoals of the recent economic crisis, he has no other options. We learn through the most immediate flashback that he is living in a shack and can not afford the price of a cup of coffee. With the last little bit of his disposable income, he has bought a pistol. Before shooting himself, he ponders over who he will take with him. The list appears endless. In reality, it is the system that is at fault. He is also ready to kill himself for the pain he has inflicted on others, both those close to him and those who have wandered into his murderous path as soldier and cop.

Each flashback is preceded by camera shots of a train speeding along the South Korean countryside played in reverse. As people and animals walk backward along the track, we travel back in time to find out how Yongho went wrong.

Before becoming a businessman, he learn that he was a cop. In 1987 the cops have apprehended a student leader who is taken back to the station-house to be tortured. They want him to divulge the name of a leading pro-democracy activist. Yongho, the most sadistic and experienced cop, holds the student’s head under water while wearing an impassive, almost bored, expression on his face.

It wasn’t always this easy. In 1984 when he was a rookie cop, he was initiated into the art of torture. After a trade unionist prisoner shits on him during a session, he rushes into the bathroom to wash himself off. While peeing, another more seasoned cop casually mentions to him that he will not be able to forget the smell. That is what “Peppermint Candy” is about mostly, a man learning how, but never successfully so, to get over the smell.

Peppermint candy is something that Yongho is especially fond of. His first love is Sunim, who works in a candy factory. When he is in the army in 1980, she sends him candy to remind him of home and her love. One night his company is rousted from bed in the middle of the night for some sort of mysterious engagement. The sergeant abuses the men, calling them “bitches,” as they struggle to get their gear together. When Yongho’s peppermints pour out of his knapsack, the sergeant punches and kicks him because candy is not allowed.

The soldiers are dispatched to Kwangju, where students and workers have been protesting for democracy. Yongho, a raw recruit, kills a young student who is not part of the protests. She has wandered into the confrontation, just trying to make her way home. Besides this young woman, every other woman he knows on more intimate terms is treated badly by Yongho who treats the opposite sex as objects to be fucked and then ignored.

When we finally arrive at 1979, we discover an entirely different Yongho at the banks of the river, where the original picnic took place. He is a shy young man in love with nature who presents Sunim with a flower that he has picked from the banks. When he sits beneath the railroad bridge, tears come to his eyes perhaps because he is overwhelmed by the beauty that surrounds him. Like Citizen Kane, this kind of innocence will be stolen from him as he becomes part of the dominant culture in Korean society.

NY critics have had some trouble connecting South Korea with the individual Yongho. The program notes at the New Directors/New Film series state: “In epic style, it covers the dissolution of a man and the development of a nation.” It would be more accurately worded: “the simultaneous dissolution of a man and a nation.” The NY Times warns that “a political dimension to Yongho’s malaise is evident, but also, for one not intimately familiar with recent South Korean history, hard to grasp.” Perhaps the critic suffers from relying on the NY Times coverage on South Korea, which goes a long way to explaining why things are hard to grasp. The systematic brutality depicted in the film never made its way to the front pages of the newspaper, which was much more interested in “economic miracle” and the dictatorship’s support for anti-Communist initiatives in the region.

“Peppermint Candy” was directed and written by Lee Chang Dong and stars Sol Kyung Gu as Yongho in the most impressive acting performance that I have witnessed this year. In the unlikely event that “Peppermint Candy” is released for general distribution, it is not to be missed.


  1. I just watched the Japanese film “Departures” (I think it won or was nominated for an Academy Award recently.) It’s an understated, poetic, even humorous treatment of death, as experienced in a different culture, that would never be made in America.

    Comment by senecal — December 22, 2010 @ 2:22 pm

  2. Thanks for shining a light on the Korean films. Much appreciated.

    Comment by Michael — December 24, 2010 @ 6:42 am

  3. Louis, I felt the same way about Rabbit Hole (haven’t seen the rest, though). I thought it was as soulless a work of art as can be produced given the production value, which was incredibly disappointing given the emotion-rich potential of the subject matter. Also, I can second senecal’s recommendation of Departures – it’s quite good.

    Comment by Eli — January 23, 2011 @ 5:11 pm

  4. […] of “Poetry” that can be found in earlier movies by Lee Chang-dong. Like his most recent Secret Sunshine, this is a tale about a woman suffering from a mental impairment in a small, conventionally minded […]

    Pingback by I Saw the Devil; Poetry « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — February 15, 2011 @ 9:03 pm

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