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The Power of Jeon Do-yeon’s Silence in ‘Secret Sunshine’

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Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a bi-weekly column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles. This entry spotlights the award-winning performance given by Jeon Do-yeon in Secret Sunshine.

Less than halfway through Chang-dong Lee’s Secret Sunshine, tragedy strikes for single mother Shin-ae (Jeon Do-yeon). Her young son, Jun, is discovered dead in a river after having been kidnapped and held for ransom. Shin-ae has spent the first act of the film already grieving the death of her husband. Now she is forced to learn a new kind of grief altogether.

Grief is never straightforward. Jeon capitalizes on this fact in her standout performance, moving effortlessly from intense, guttural sadness to delusional happiness, then to psychosis and back again in an exhausting, whiplash-inducing emotional rollercoaster. But between the screams and the physical collapse, the strength of Jeon’s performance lies in its quietest moments.

Before the death of her son, Shin-ae’s everyday movements are bold and almost theatrical. In public, she is generally restrained and quiet, but when she lets go, she really lets go. Jeon expresses this through bold,........

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