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A Sun

Released 2019. Director: Chung Mong-Hong

A DOMESTIC EPIC WHERE FAMILY TIES ARE TESTED, BROKEN, MENDED, A SUN is an absorbing look at the breakdown and redemption of an ordinary family in Taiwan grappling with gut-wrenching situations.

Not wasting time on introductions, the movie gets straight into it, with teenage delinquents Ah-Ho and Radish bursting into a restaurant and with a violent swing of a machete, chops off the hand of a diner.

Ah-Ho’s dad, long been dismayed by his wayward son’s behaviour, refuses to attend the sentencing. He tells his wife bitterly he hopes Ah-Ho goes to jail and dies in there. Such is his anger he never wants to see his son again.

Locked up in juvenile detention, Ah-Ho learns very quickly to defend himself against bigger and stronger boys, biding his time for release. While his life is suspended, his older brother Ah-Hao prepares to enter university to become a doctor. The apple of his dad’s eye, Ah-Hao appears to be the opposite of his troublemaking brother. Tall, smart and well-behaved, on whom all their parents’ hopes are pinned.

Dad personally brings tuition fees to Ah-Hao in class, with a diary emblazoned with the motto “Seize the day, decide your path” on its cover, a personal mantra he often repeats and a business slogan at his workplace, a driving school. Much later in the story, we see what’s happened to all the diaries Ah-Hao’s been given, and how Ah-Ho tells his mum not to let his dad know, or it’ll break his heart.

Dad has a simple philosophy. Life is likened to driving a car. You slowly accelerate, you obey the traffic lights, you follow the signs posted – his mind is focused straight ahead, there is no provision for veering off course. He cannot accept that his younger son has gone way off the road on a destructive path.

Whilst dad remains angry all the time, mum suffers in silence and Ah-Hao hides his troubled mind from his parents, along comes a 15-year-old girl who claims Ah-Ho is the father of her unborn baby. Dad is also hounded by the father of the young man whose hand was hacked off, demanding monetary compensation in the millions.

It seems this family will never find peace. But another tragedy strikes, the consequence of which is far greater than anything they’ve been through in their troubled lives.

A Sun is relentless in pushing the family to their physical and psychological limits. Emotional burdens weigh on their shoulders as they carry on living, working, serving time, building and rebuilding their lives, one day at a time. The men have turned from each other, mum is left holding the fragile balance and strives to do the right thing for everyone.

What makes this such a riveting viewing is the empathy invested in the characters. These are not plot devices used to move the storyline from one point to another but fully drawn, realistic portrayals of people struggling against strain and resentment, even as they try to understand each other and perhaps, reach out for support and solace.

Performances are solid all round, from the quietly anxious mother (Samantha Ko), the introspective and troubled Ah-Hao (Greg Han Hsu) to a lineup of supporting characters, but principally the commanding presence of the father and the black sheep of the family.

Chen Yi-Wen, in the role of the father, soldiers on with a job teaching people how to drive even as he steers himself further away from his wife and family, suppressing his seething aggravation, disappointment and a sense of parental failure. For a brief moment, the harsh man slips when he unconsciously lets his real thoughts show at a speech he gives to his driving students. An unexpected confession at the movie’s end reveals a crack beneath his hardened attitude, like molten rock churning inside a volcano, as we see how a father will go to any extreme to protect his child, even one he has practically disowned.

Ah-Ho is intense, angry, a scrawny but spirited survivor finding his way back from the thoughtlessness of his errors. Wu Chien-Ho gives Ah-Ho an electrifying unpredictability and plays his character like a stick of dynamite with a lit fuse you couldn’t help being apprehensive about what he will do next. When his ex-partner in crime, the young man nicknamed Radish, is released from prison and back to extract justice from Ah-Ho, the past catches up in a scary fashion. Their encounters and exchanges are uncomfortably tense, simply but superbly directed.

Midway through, there’s a scene where Ah-Hao uses an allegory of the sun to express his thoughts on being in the spotlight and the pressure of meeting his parents’ high expectations. The English translation of the title is a serendipitous play on words with the homonym “son”, and more appropriately, “a son” whom the father denies, but in reality around whom their whole world revolves.

In its 2-hour 36-minute runtime, we see how some mistakes are irreversible. But the movie also asks how we judge those closest to us, and perhaps more importantly, if we could change our opinions about them, or even ourselves. The tumultuous years finally come to a serene ending, a special bonding memory for mother and son which is simultaneously a crime and a heart-warming act.

A Sun won 5 awards including Best Film at the 2019 Golden Horse Film Festival.

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