Home Theatre: A Sun - Family matters
A fortnightly column that focuses on notable content available on the streaming platforms around you, and this week it is A Sun, streaming on Netflix
Chung Mong-hong's A Sun was released on Netflix early this year, but it flew under nearly everyone's radar up until recently. The Taiwanese film received some much-overdue attention when it made it to the best of 2020 list of Variety's Peter Debruge. Though I'd put it on my watchlist back when it came out, it was this recent buzz that made me finally sit down and watch it. And boy, am I glad I did!
A Sun is about a middle-class Taipei family with two sons of contrasting dispositions. The older son, A-Hao, is a brilliant premed student, who is also kind and good to everyone. He is the sun of the title. Bright, radiant, shining on everyone alike. The family, particularly the father A-Wen, hang all hopes on A-Hao. So much so that A-Wen considers him his only son and completely ignores his wayward younger son A-Ho. This younger son gets into the wrong company and finds himself in juvenile detention right at the start of the film. When the judge asks his father what he has to say, A-Wen has no qualms telling them to put his son away to teach him a lesson. He would rather not deal with A-Ho at all.
It's not hard to see that A-Ho's behaviour may have a lot to do with the way his father treats him. That parents don't love their children equally is a given, but A-Wen takes this to an extreme and it ends up affecting both his sons. While A-Ho gets into bad company and acts out like the troubled child he is, the effects on A-Hao are more insidious. We only realise the extent of this when a stack of untouched diaries that his father gave A-Hao are discovered at the end of the film. They are all from the driving school where A-Wen works as an instructor and are inscribed with the motto, "Seize the day. Decide your path." We also see A-Wen recite this motto as he gives A-Hao the latest diary early on — as if the pressure on him to be the good son and succeed wasn't bad enough already. A-Ho struggles to live in his brother's shadow; it's hard being the younger sibling of someone who is so seemingly perfect. A-Hao, on the other hand, longs for some shade to hide in — a dark corner, some respite from the non-stop warmth. As the girl who cares about him puts it, "Sometimes it seemed as if he gave all the goodness to others, and forgot to keep any for himself."
The writing and the excellent performances across the board flesh out not just the two brothers, but every character in the film. Wu Chien-ho as A-Ho and Samantha Ko as his mother Qin deserve particular praise. With a runtime just north of 150 minutes, A Sun takes its time but it also packs in much drama. A lot happens to this family over the course of the film, some of it quite shocking. But there's an underlying truth to everything and director Chung Mong-hong's skill ensures we stay invested throughout.
The director has also handled the cinematography (under the pseudonym Nagao Nakashima), which is striking without being overbearing. This is clear right from the stunning opening sequence which sets up the mood straight away. Also of note is the delicate, muted score from Lin Sheng-xiang that subtly adds a lot to the film. Take the score in that same first sequence, for instance. It's a lilting melody that perfectly matches the rainy night scene at the start. What's notable is how the music doesn't change even when the scene takes a turn for the violent. It heightens the shock of what we're seeing and also prepares us to expect the unexpected.
The film ends with a lovely callback to an earlier flashback scene. It's a reassuring sequence that comes as a relief after all that we see this family go through, and a hopeful one. It's the perfect note to end on, both this film and the traumatic year that we've all endured. Here's hoping the coming year brings us all a little respite as well.