The Celluloid Traveler: The Secret Sunshine of Miryang

For most visitors to Korea, Miryang is just another stop on the train line between Seoul and Busan. It also happens to be the setting for Secret Sunshine, Chang-Dong Lee’s devastating 2007 film about grief and loss. If you never looked beyond the windows of your train, or outside of the drab city center as depicted in the film, you would never see the Miryang (which translates literally as “secret sunshine”) that locals have long known about.

Miryang, which is located in the southwest part of the Korean peninsula, is divided into three areas by the confluence of two rivers, the Miryang and Nakdong. These two waterways pinch off the middle section of the city into a small, heavily developed island. I arrived by train, disembarking in the southern part of town and, after meeting up with a friend, took a taxi to the northern—and decidedly older—area to catch a bus to our first destination, Pyochungsa.

With an hour or so to kill until our bus left, we wandered around, our foreign faces drawing stares from the bemused and mostly elderly locals. Aside from the unique, river-dominated geography, there was nothing to distinguish Miryang from any other town I had seen in Korea. Junky shops, small restaurants with metal chimneys protruding horizontally out above the sidewalks, cell phone stores—it could have been anywhere. I looked in vain for a business advertising piano lessons as in the film but there were none to be found. I wondered why Lee had chosen to set his film here. There was nothing particularly grief-stricken about it. In fact, the most distinctive feature of the town was how much it looked like any other small town in Korea.

After fueling up on bungeoppang, a tasty fish-shaped desert filled with sweet red beans, from a street vendor, we left the drab downtown of Miryang behind and boarded a bus bound for the northern outskirts and the temple, Pyochungsa.

Like almost all temples in Korea, Pyochungsa is located deep in the mountains. We visited on a day in mid-March, and although it was unseasonably warm, the surrounding hills were still bare of vegetation. Soon they would erupt into a lush green but for now they were a hard scrabble brown, covered with match-stick-like trees, large granite rocks occasionally visible. The temple was founded in 654 A.D., although like most Korean temples it has been rebuilt over the years, particularly after the Japanese invaded in the late 1500s and burned it down.

Traveling in Korea almost always involves crowds, as it’s one of the most densely populated countries on earth. However, on this day, the crowds were mercifully light despite the lovely weather. We were able to truly enjoy the peacefulness of the temple, the color of its burgundy buildings fading gracefully, and its location. I can’t say how many times I’ve been to a temple renowned for its Zen tranquility only to find the premises overrun by screaming children and tipsy middle aged tourists.

Back in town, we opted to walk to our next destination, the Yeongnamnu Pavilion, which sits on a hillside overlooking a bend in the Miryang River. Dating from the Joseon Period, it has been called one of the three greatest pavilions in Korea and is the subject of many poems. For us, it would prove to be a hard-won destination.

Still feeling good from our traipse around Pyongchungsa, and still feeling the effects of the beers we guzzled while waiting for the return bus, my friend and I set out on foot for the pavilion. After a mile or so of increasingly confused wandering, we realized we were lost. The sun was now high in the sky and what had started as a nice day had become downright hot. Our buzz fading, and feeling increasingly frustrated with the cars whizzing by on dangerously narrow streets, we admitted defeat and asked directions from a convenient store clerk in our best, broken Korean. Although we didn’t quite understand her answer, we were soon back on the streets of Miryang, this time headed in the right direction.

After what seemed like hours in the hot sun, the storefronts offering nothing in the way of shade, we rounded a corner and at last saw it. Perched on the golden hillside like a great bird, its up-swept eaves like wings, the pavilion—the biggest I had ever seen in Korea—beckoned to us with a wide expanse of shade. We removed our shoes and plopped down on the cool floor, the faint smell of aged wood in the air. And there it was: a magnificent view of the Miryang River and the city island behind it, the slow-moving water lit up by the low-hanging sun. Families enjoying the weekend had taken to the water in swan-shaped boats and lazily meandered through the sparkling, silver water. A kind breeze swept through the pavilion and the tensions of the long, hot walk disappeared.

“I think we found the secret sunshine of Miryang,” my friend remarked contentedly. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Add To The Experience

Miryang is halfway between Busan and Daegu, Korea’s third largest city, and is easily reached by the KTX, Korea’s bullet train, from Seoul. Although there are lots of small hotels in the area, it would make a better day trip en route to somewhere else than a destination of its own.

(Editor’s note: Secret Sunshine will be released in region 1 DVD and Blu-Ray by The Criterion Collection on 08/23/11.  Click here for more details.)