A Sun

A Sun (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

A-Hao (Hsu Greg), the elder of the two brothers, is considered to be the good one, the handsome one, the one who is kind, considerate, and compassionate. He aspires to attend medical school. His brother, A-Ho (Wu Chien-ho), has earned the reputation of being the bad seed, the one who has an angry streak, consistently in or causing trouble. A recent incident involving the cutting off another man’s hand using a machete has led A-Ho to being sentenced in juvenile detention for up to three years.

When their father, Wen (Chen Yi-wen), a driving instructor, is asked by his students whether he has any children, he claims he only has one, referring to the good son. It is readily apparent he is deeply embarrassed of his troublemaker son even before the aforementioned violent episode. By the end of this story, we will learn not only why but also whether the subjects, deep down, are capable of true change. If so, to what extent and the unthinkable sacrifices that must be made in order to preserve what is left of the family—or one’s idea of family.

Some movies require longer than two hours and thirty minutes to tell their stories so that by the end viewers are left with a feeling of completion—and exhaustion. Chung Mong-hong’s “A Sun” is one of these films, expertly employing its extended running time to drown us in the Chen family drama in which easy answers are rare and difficult decisions tend to take a toll on the soul. It is melodramatic at times, yes, but its power cannot be denied when anguish, especially the quiet but demolishing kind, is written all over every character’s being at any given moment.

The four central performances, particularly by Ko Samantha who plays the mother Qin—calm, patient and a master at compartmentalization—are equally strong. Choose any scene and notice how there is not one instance in which a performer chooses to wear only one emotion. Often there is an ocean of difference between what is written on their face and what their eyes are desperate to communicate. This creates intrigue.

This epic story is massaged in a way where we eventually follow every member of the Chen family without being made aware of the distinct chapters. Take A-Hao’s story, for instance. We follow him in school, we observe how he relates to girls, we listen to his stories, and we appreciate his introspective nature. In between these small but informative moments are reminders of the challenges that the Chens, as a unit, are going through, like how they try to adapt to life after A-Ho’s incarceration—somebody whom, that we can imagine they, at least on the surface, didn’t really care for or place much value in when he was a free man. In actuality, he is a crucial part of who they are. Otherwise, his absence would not have caused such a rift in the household. It is fascinating that A-Ho’s imprisonment is treated almost like a death.

What I found ironic—and beautiful—is that A-Ho is able to grow—first in his head while in confinement and then later in action once he is released. The Chen family is required to adapt once again. Most movies, especially in the west, tend to cut a character’s journey in half which results in the evolution coming across disingenuous, tacked on. This is where the extra hour or so comes into play. It is patient. It exercises restraint. Like a hawk, the camera observes whether A-Ho will become just another hopeless case, a statistic. His father watches, too, even though Wen finds it to be unbearable being around his disappointment of a son. We ask ourselves: How can a father who has spent so many years with his back to his “other” son turn around and face him? But it is not that simple. It is one thing to face, it is another to accept.

“A Sun” is not interested in making the viewers feel good—at least not in a traditional sense. It offers moments of catharsis that are earned. Instead, it places emphasis on creating an accurate portrait of a working class Taiwanese family who must play the cards they are dealt with. Sometimes the cards are, well, shitty. (There is a humorous scene involving a tank full of excrement.) The writer-director has a true understanding of families: that each one is defined by how it handles hardship and adapts to the aftermath. Through the individual members’ actions, we are able to measure and appreciate the family’s strength as a whole.

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