A group of children plays along the banks of South Korea's Han River. The weather is pleasant; the birds are singing. Then one of the kids spots something floating nearby: the body of a teenage girl, face down, lifeless. In a good many movies, this discovery would be a shocking disruption. Writer-director Lee Chang-dong (Secret Sunshine) treats it placidly, as a harsh, though not calamitous, fact. Beauty is blemished, but tranquility is not canceled out.
It takes a while to grasp what this striking opening sequence has to do with Mija (Yun), the film's elderly heroine. We meet her at a relatively peaceful time of life: She has a part-time job as a maid. She takes care of her grandson, who's going through all the usual growing pains. She forgets words on occasion, but pays it little mind. And in the midst of her daily routine, she comes across a flyer for a poetry class, which piques a long-dormant interest. By the end of the film, Mija's circumstances will have profoundly changed, even as, outwardly, she appears unaltered. It's a wonder to watch the story shift with each elegantly imparted revelation. And as in Secret Sunshine, Lee tailors the movie to a brilliant lead actor: Yun is quite simply spectacular as a woman who holds steadfastly on to her dignity and empathy, even in the face of unspeakable tragedy.
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