It’s a helluva thing for a father to say, but we certainly understand.
When a chatty student of the driving instructor Mr. Wen (Yi-wen Chen) wants to know if he has children, he doesn’t hesitate.
“Yes, a son,” he says (in Mandarin with English subtitles). “He’s getting ready for medical school.”
We’ve seen other son, aptly-nicknamed “A-Ho” (Chien-Ho Wu) participate in a brutal machete attack on an enemy with his redheaded hoodlum-pal Radish (Kuan-Ting Liu). We’ve seen him shrink in court, showing remorse, but too little too late for his father. Dad’s speech cinched A-Ho’s prison sentence, his declaration that he and his wife (Samantha Shu-Chin Ko) were “lax” and “failed.”
“I hope he’s locked up a good, long time” is not what a kid wants to hear from his Dad, no matter how heinous the crime.
But over the course of “A Sun,” proud-and-fed-up father and his punk son will bend, a marriage will be tested as tragedy and other failures from the son they gave up on will stagger everyone in A-Ho’s circle. And by the third act you’ll wonder if this opening act attack will be the end of them all.
Mong-Hong Chung’s “A Sun” is Taiwan’s choice to compete for a place in the Best International Film competition at the Oscars. Don’t let its epic length scare you off. This intimate saga is an alternately sad and intense take on “the sins of the father” and the rippling effects of violence. And if it’s not quite as incident-packed as a movie of this length ought to be, what’s here is rich in character and a rewarding experience.
A-Ho has barely checked into prison when his under-age girlfriend (Apple Wu) and her outraged aunt (Ivy Yin) show up at the family’s door. The kid is pregnant.
The father (Li-Tung Chang) of the machete attack victim is insisting on financial restitution, even though A-Ho didn’t do the hacking.
And the imprisoned and under-sized A-Ho will be tested by prison gangs, a hulk of a roommate and his on-the-spectrum temper as he struggles to do his time.
There’s also the “good” son (Greg Han Hsu), carrying the weight of expectations through “cram school,” trying to do right by the pregnant girl who comes to live with them, trying to do right by everybody.
And just when we think things might turn out all right as A-Ho checks out of jail, there’s Radish again, Dad becomes estranged from the family and death, the threat of further violence and communication breakdowns build dread and suspense into this family’s tale of woe.
The story doesn’t cover a lot of ground, but what it does we feel we know intimately. And every so often, there’s a scene so touching or tense that you want to turn away.
A father has his first real conversation in years with his son, both sitting on the floor of the solitary confinement cell A-Ho’s been shoved into, and a mother is asked about her kid by the woman who has raised his now-pregnant girlfriend, takes a deep breath and in a confession of blunt, broken honesty, delivers “the telling anecdote,” that moment in childhood in which she thinks A-Ho’s problems first surfaced.
Chen and Ko both deliver moving performances, suggesting people that have moved beyond giving up to owning up, analyzing what went wrong in monologues that tell us they’ve had years to give this a lot of thought.
Wu gives us new layers to the “short tempered short guy” stereotype, a small man we see is capable of taking care of himself, even in prison. Watching Wu physically shrink when Liu’s quietly malevolent Radish shows up is one of the most dispiriting things I’ve seen in a film in ages. It isn’t just the physical mismatch that makes him cowed, it’s guilt.
With Korea earning the lion’s share of Asian cinema’s spotlight of late, I can’t speak to the Oscar chances of “A Sun.” But I can say it’s worth setting aside an evening before or after somebody famous says “and the Oscar goes to.”
MPA Rating: TV-MA, graphic violence
Cast: Chien-Ho Wu, Yi-wen Chen, Samantha Shu-Chin Ko, Kuan-Ting Liu, Apple Wu
Credits: Directed by Mong-Hong Chung, script by Yaosheng Chang and Mong-Hong Chung. A Netflix release.
Running time: 2:36