This piece is part of a series called Jewels Under the Kitchen Sink – here we try to bring films, that have been overlooked during their time, or were (despite their distinctive and timely nature) somehow forgotten, back onto the radar. It’s an attempt at reaching into the dusty niches of time and fishing some true gems out of there. We hope to peak your interest towards some of these films, so they can be reintroduced into today’s film discussion.
There is that kind of film that I love to return to when I feel like my day is reaching a feel-bad peak, often connected to a still image of my room’s ceiling. These wonderful and yet rarely praised films are light, trope-heavy, easy to follow, inherently dramatic and ready to beat up the tearjerk button – all set for a slightly manipulative and cathartic escape from reality, while always having some sort of honest, emotional thread that connects with you and lifts you up. One of my very favorite films of that genre are the two Mamma Mia! outings, both heavily escapist and yet emotionally compelling at the same time. It’s a very hard task for filmmakers to hit that sweet balance and for many cine-dependents like me, the further search for these films never stops. It was a pleasant surprise when Sunny, a film that was a box office smash hit in Korea, yet in the west was almost exclusively known by the loyal followers of Korean cinema, landed on my radar after a good friend recommended it to me.
After the death of one of her old classmates, Na-Mi, a woman stuck in her unsatisfactory role as a middle-aged housewife, sees a chance to gain a new purpose in fulfilling latter’s dying wish and tries to reunite her old school clique. The film intercuts between the tumultuous school days of these girls and Na-Mi’s quest to convince her old friends to reunite for one more time. It’s a premise that seemingly gets re-interpreted by the month, but Sunny is somehow very distinct from them.
The film opens with a squeaky clean and calculated commercial aesthetic that accompanies the prologue, a portrait of Na-Mi’s frustration, her inability to connect to her daughter and the negligence by her husband. Director Hyoung-chul consciously restrains that visual artificiality quickly, to give the film a more natural flow of imagery the further it gets into the plot. Although this doesn’t mean that the film is not absolutely crisp in its visual language and color palette – everything is turned up to the tolerable max, as eye-popping and -pleasing as possible. This is something that can turn out to be distracting and it’s certainly manipulative. It’s something you could accuse the entire film of, to be quite frank. If you take a step back, you can see how constructed every narrative beat is and how there are active moments where every technical part of the film works together to stir up your emotions.
It’s often seen as something inherently bad, the most-utilized argument being that it’s lazy and easy. That’s not quite true. The argument only applies in cases where the emotions do not feel legitimate, when the viewer can feel the cheapness and construction of the emotional stakes. It’s not hard to force an emotion by inserting artificial situations into your story. What is hard, is to make it feel earned and legitimate, even when your story is essentially created to emotionally guide the viewer in a planned fashion. And that’s where Sunny succeeds full force.
The journey we go on is brimming with life, wit and most of all, humanity. It’s not a new story in the slightest, but director Hyoung-chul directs and texturally decorates his co-written vision to perfection. The lead characters subvert cliches in a surprising fashion and become palpable as strong female personalities. The storytelling accompanying the familiar narrative beats is refreshingly inventive and ballsy. In one remarkable scene early on, Na-Mi gets accepted into the girl group by pretending her diabetes symptoms to be the physical expression of a spiritual possession and thus makes the rivals of the girls, who seem much more potent at first, flee in fright. There is Na-Mi’s grandma that utters the words (at least if you believe the English subtitles) “No blamin’ the bitches for playin’ the game,” after her grandson talks about the dismantlement of capitalism. Every single scene is filled with that same amount of exciting, hilarious and strange ideas, which permanently make us want to keep watching. We are slowly reeled into the detailed and melodramatic world of Sunny and we grow to legitimately and wholeheartedly love these characters.
This all shows that great screenwriting can be incredibly formulaic in its structure and still engage us until the very end. And what an ending it is. When I tell you that the last moments are set to a Tuck & Patti cover of Time After Time, you will probably roll your eyes. But I promise you, if you watch the film, you will truly feel something. And sometimes that is what you need to hit the reset button on a seemingly wasted day – to feel something is essential for one to see the world in a different, less dim light. It’s enough to consider a film a great one, when it is exceptionally successful at that. Sunny is a great film. Don’t let it slip by.