Film Review – A Sun
The Taiwanese film, A Sun (2019) made the festival rounds last year and just hit Netflix for a wider audience. Directed and co-written by Mong-Hong Chung (along with Yaosheng Chang), this is an emotionally devastating story of family, regret, tragedy, and reconciliation. There is a quiet, intimate feel in the way events slowly unfold throughout the two and half hour run time. But Chung has an assured hand, guidance us with such confidence that at no point did it fall off the rails or venture into unneeded territory. Within the subdued moments lies a powerful examination of humanity tested to its limits.
We start with a shockingly violent crime, in which the young A-Ho (Chien-Ho Wu) gets sent to juvenile detention. Sadly, A-Ho is considered the black sheep of his family, so much so that his father Mr. Chen (Yi-wen Chen) tells the judge to give him the maximum sentence. Mr. Chen works at a driving school, and whenever the question of his children comes up, he only acknowledges the existence of his eldest son, A-Hao (Greg Han Hsu). Where A-Ho has a history of getting into trouble, A-Hao is the ideal son – tall, handsome, and working to get into medical school.
Things are already stressful for the family when A-Ho gets sent away, but things get even more complicated when Xiao Yu (Dai-Ling Wu) – A-Ho’s girlfriend – shows up at their doorstep pregnant with his child. A-Ho’s mother, Miss Qin (Samantha Ko) does what she can to accept Xiao Yu into their home while keeping things stable – even helping Xiao Yu get a job as a hairdresser. But for Mr. Chen, he sees the situation as yet another mouth to feed – another mess his son has left them to clean up.
On the surface, the plot has the familiarity of a soap opera. Luckily, each character is so fully realized that the emotions never feel coerced or phony. There are many running themes that highlight the thoughtfulness of the writing and direction. We have the relationship between siblings – how one brother suffers under the disapproving eyes of his parents, where the other suffers under the pressure of living up to the high expectations placed upon him. We have a father whose low view of himself spills over into his treatment of his family. Mr. Chen repeatedly goes by his work’s motto, “Seize the day. Decide your path,” and yet his life is anything but within his control. The family is hit with one set back after another, and each one has to deal with it as best as they can.
Chung’s slow, methodical approach has a kind of haunting effect on the material. While the setting is very much a realistic one, Chung will insert little bits of fantasy to surprise us. When A-Hao recalls a folktale to a fellow student, we see an animated sequence showing what he describes. As A-Hao drifts off to sleep in the middle of a classroom, Chung cuts from a shot where the room is completely filled with students to one where A-Hao is all alone. Dreams are constantly referenced, and on some occasions a character will be visited by a loved one who may or may not actually be physically present. These small but significant touches elevate the material, somehow making the story come alive in ways that catches us off guard.
About halfway through, the narrative takes a drastic turn, causing us to re-examine each of the characters, their motivations, and our perspectives of them. This event may turn off some viewers, as there are no clues hinting that it will happen. But this may be the point. Our preconceived notions of who people are often shape how we treat them. By incorporating this moment, we come to the idea that people are more than just the facades they put up. That underneath the appearance of stability, chaos, and vice versa, lies a human core that doesn’t exist in black and white terms, but in shades of grey. People’s appreciation of A Sun will depend on their ability to accept this change and continue with where the narrative takes them.
There are portions of the film that don’t work as well. One involves Mr. Chen’s interaction with the parent of another kid involved in the opening crime. Their back and forth doesn’t hit with dramatic weight, and the climactic moment between them (involving no less than a septic truck) comes off as slapstick comedy. There’s also the issue of the extended third section, in which the character of Radish (Kuan-Ting Liu) – yet another participant of the crime – returns to torment A-Ho and the family. The tension between Radish and A-Ho isn’t necessarily a bad one, but it doesn’t fit well tonally with the rest of the narrative. Where the majority of the story looks at fathers and sons and the mending of broken relationships, Radish and A-Ho’s dynamic belongs more in the realm of a crime thriller. Chung manages to justify this at the very end, but it still remains disjointed from everything else.
But when it does click, A Sun radiates with emotional power, telling an intimate story while avoiding all the traps that could have sunk it into cheap melodrama. It’s a film about human life in all of its ups and downs, joys and miseries. I know it’s still early in 2020, but here we have contender for one of the top films of the year.