A Sun (2019) ☆☆☆(3/4): Ordinary People

Taiwanese film “A Sun”, which was selected as Taiwan’s entry for the Best International Feature Film Oscar in this year, is a sprawling family drama with many ups and downs throughout its slow but engaging narrative. Although some of its melodramatic moments do not entirely work, the movie still never loses the human dimension of its story and characters, and we come to care more about its seemingly simple main characters as they come to show more of each own pain and struggle along the story.

The story mainly revolves around one family living in Taipei. A-Wen (Chen Yi-Wen), who works as a driving instructor, and his hairdresser wife Qin (Samantha Ko) have two sons, and they particularly have lots of expectation on their older son A-Hao (Greg Hsu), who is your typical model son and is currently preparing for his upcoming medical school entrance examination along with many other students. In contrast, their younger son A-ho (Wu Chien-ho) has been nothing but a troublemaker for many years, and the opening scene strikes us with a shocking moment of violence involved with him and his more problematic friend.

When his younger son is soon arrested and then charged with what he and his friend committed, A-Wen is certainly becomes angry and furious although he has not expected anything from his younger son. When his wife asks him to say something during the following trial, he is not so willing to do that, and he eventually tells the judge presiding over the case that his younger son deserves to be punished for what he has done.

Anyway, A-ho comes to receive a lighter sentence compared to his friend because he was technically an accessory in their felony, and we soon see him sent to a correctional facility for juvenile delinquents outside Taipei. Not so surprisingly, his father still does not give a damn about him, but his mother often visits him because, well, she still cares about him as his mother.

While A-ho is going through a series of rough moments as he frequently clashes with several inmates with whom he happens to share a room, his family faces a couple of serious matters outside because of him. On one day, Qin is visited by a young girl around A-ho’s age and the girl’s legal guardian, and it turns out that the girl has been pregnant with A-ho’s child. While Qin is trying to deal with this matter, A-wen has to deal with the father of the victim of A-ho and his friend’s felony, and his unflappable position on their issue subsequently leads to a silly comic moment which feels rather jarring compared to the phlegmatic overall tone of the film.

In contrast, an unexpected incident involved with A-Hao is effectively devastating because we already come to sense what has been slowly accumulated inside him. He is a kind and thoughtful lad who has surely been loved and adored by his parents, but, as reflected by a tale told to his accidental friend by him at one point, he has often felt isolated and suffocated as constantly aware of his parents’ affection and expectation on him, and there is no one to whom he can confide on that.

Even after that narrative point, the movie steadily maintains its leisurely narrative flow, and the screenplay by the director/co-writer Chung Mong-hong (He also handled the cinematography of his movie as Nagao Nakashima, by the way) and Chang Yao-sheng tentatively observes its main characters’ respective emotional damages and their following healing process. While Qin decides to take care of A-ho’s pregnant girlfriend in addition to teaching some hairdressing skill to her, A-ho comes to have more reflection on his longtime emotional issues, and he is ready for a second chance when he is about to be released from his correctional facility a few years later, though, not so surprisingly, it is very difficult for him to get a job due to his criminal record. Initially quite uncomfortable about A-ho’s return, A-wen is eventually reminded of what he should do via a little personal moment with A-Hao, and he and his younger son later have a sort of reconciliation between them.

During its last act, the movie takes another plot turn, and the mood becomes quite tense and melodramatic as A-wen and A-ho suddenly find themselves facing the consequences of their respective choices in the past. Although this part feels a bit too heavy-handed at times, the movie still holds our attention as before thanks to Chung’s skillful direction, and his four main cast members are uniformly excellent on the whole. While Chen Yi-wen is the most compelling one in the bunch as a father stoically but palpably mired in complicated feelings and thoughts on his two different sons, Samantha Ko steadily holds the ground for her fellow cast members via her stable performance, and Wu Chien-ho and Greg Hsu are convincing as two very different sons in the story.

Although it was quietly released on Netflix several months ago, “A Sun” recently happens to draw considerable attention as receiving lots of praises from a number of American critics including Peter Debruge of Variety, who incidentally named it the best film of 2020. While I am not so enthusiastic about the film compared to them, the movie engaged me more than expected in addition to reminding me a lot of similar other drama films such as Robert Redford’s Oscar-winning film “Ordinary People” or Trey Edward Shults’ “Waves” (2019), and that is more than enough for me to recommend to you this rather overlooked film.

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