Four years ago, before COVID turned everything upside-down, a new Asian masterpiece world premiered virtually unnoticed at the Toronto Film Festival. I’m referring to “A Sun,” a multi-faceted Taiwanese family saga from director Chung Mong-Hong that seemed to shift and evolve as it unfolded, challenging what audiences though they knew about the characters. Tucked away in TIFF’s overcrowded (and under-promoted) Contemporary World Cinema section, the film easily slid under the radar.
Toronto programmers weren’t about to make the same mistake with “A Normal Family,” giving a Gala spot to South Korean director Hur Jin-ho’s complex, complacency-shattering moral study — a movie with a heightened yet easily relatable premise, and strong potential to play well around the globe. Like “A Sun,” the movie comes roaring out of the gate with a shocker of an opening scene: An aggro jerk in a blood-red Maserati tears through the streets of Ilsan, ticking off a family man in an SUV, who swerves to block his path. When that guy gets out, the reckless driver plows ahead, killing the stranger and leaving his daughter in critical condition.
Shot in slick, Hollywood-style widescreen, the film may look crisp and meticulously constructed, but its sense of right and wrong is blurry as can be — in the best sense, for those who like meaty situations worthy of debate. That startling road-rage incident sets the tone for everything that follows, escalating so quickly that audiences don’t have time to ask what they would have done in either character’s situation. The culprit, a trust-fund monster counting on Daddy to make the rap go away, is beyond saving, but his crime directly impacts two brothers.
The eldest is an attorney with no conscience named Jae-wan (Sul Kyung-gu), who gets a call obliging him to take the case. He knows just the tricks to spin the murder to a lesser charge. Meanwhile, the injured girl is rushed to the ER, where his life-saving younger brother, rigorously ethical pediatrician Jae-gyu (Jang Dong-gun), works one of his miracles. The adult siblings don’t realize they’re on opposite sides of this particular scenario until Jae-wan arranges a posh meal with his brother, and both of their wives, who aren’t afterthought characters but equal participants in important decisions.
The lawyer’s married to Ji-su (Claire Kim), a much-younger trophy bride whom the doctor’s wife, Yeon-kyung (Hee-ae Kim), teases mercilessly. But is the older woman superior or just jealous? Through the film, these four terrific actors navigate subtleties of body language and tone to convey countless nuances to the ever-shifting social dynamics. Their attitudes may be loathsome at times, but the performances are incredibly rich — especially the wives, who channel the way Edie Falco played Carmela Soprano. There was the supportive face she wore publicly and all the layers of doubt and compromise roiling beneath the surface.
“A Normal Family” was adapted from Herman Koch’s “The Dinner,” a Dutch novel that takes place entirely over the course of a turbulent family dinner, which suggests the movie could have been a stagy, single-location affair. Instead, co-writers Park Eun-kyo and Park Joon-seok expand the story across several days and myriad locations, giving Hur the room to interpret the script’s countless tensions as cinematically as possible.
While the adults bicker over dinner, they unwisely trust their teenage kids — Jae-wan’s college-bound daughter Hye-yoon (Hong Ye-ji) and Jae-gyu’s slightly younger, serially bullied son Si-ho (Kim Jung-chul) — to look out for one another. But Hur has already revealed the adolescents to be budding sociopaths in a scene where, while pretending to study, they’ve actually been streaming the accident footage, cheering on the driver like he’s the hero of some violent video game.
That same night, the teens act out in a way no one could have imagined — and most parents would find impossible to forgive. Except, when it’s your kids who were the perpetrators, suddenly forgiveness doesn’t seem so impossible. Hye-yoon and Si-ho might have gotten away with it too, were it not for an unseen surveillance camera (an extremely Michael Hanekean device in a film that brings a kind of directorial brio the Austrian helmer typically dials to a minimum). Now, the footage of their misdeed is all over the news, a police investigation is underway and both fathers are positioned to intercede on their kids’ behalf.
Alternating between humanist concern for its characters (especially the injured girl on life support) and a darkly cynical sense of humor (as when her mother asks the lawyer how much his client is offering to settle the case), the rest of “A Normal Family” reveals how ironically Hur takes the film’s title. The teens don’t seem at all remorseful about their actions, while their openly hypocritical — and increasingly histrionic — parents worry about not only their kids’ futures, but how doing what’s right might impact their own careers.
The four adult characters must not only decide for themselves whether to turn in their kids, but convince the others to go along with their decision. It’s not hard to predict that unscrupulous Jae-wan might grow a conscience, or that noble Jae-gyu would consider betraying his own values, but their wives surprise. The whole matter seems so morally ambiguous at times that it makes for an unpredictable ride, right up to the film’s abrupt, but poetically thought-provoking smash ending.
Post source: variety