▶ A Sun is available on Netflix.
- Spoiler alert: this review reveals a plot twist.
A Sun starts off looking like a very dark thriller. Two young men swathed in plastic raincoats ride what turns out to be a stolen motor-scooter through Taipei’s neon-lit night streets in a tropical downpour. There are a few terse words exchanged about their target’s location as they reach the back door of a cheap restaurant, then barrel through corridors into the dining area, where the older of the two attacks a diner with a machete. The victim falls to the floor in agony, an artery spurting blood from his arm. His severed right hand has landed in a simmering hotpot of soup.
Although gentle music offsets the horror of the scene, this is not the film’s only depiction of brutality: more violence, much of it mental, will follow across the film’s two-and-a-half hours. But the deliberate shock of the opening kickstarts a narrative that gradually reveals itself to be more about healing than destruction. A Sun, which has been shortlisted for the Best International Feature Film Oscar, is the most piercing and engrossing account of a family tested to near-ruin since the late Edward Yang’s masterpieces A Brighter Summer Day (1991) and A One and a Two (aka Yi Yi, 2000). It’s one of the most impressive films of recent times.
The focus is on the lower-middle-class Chen family (father, Wen, a driving instructor; mother, Qin, a hairdresser) with two adolescent sons: the elder boy Hao, handsome and well-liked, has failed the entrance exam for medical school and is cramming to try again; the younger boy Ho, jealous and resentful of his brother’s popularity and status in the family, has drifted into delinquency. The severed hand incident was a reprisal for the victim Oden’s bullying of Ho; the machete was wielded by Ho’s dangerous and possibly psychotic friend Radish, to whom he turned for help, although Ho maintains that the intention was merely to scare off Oden.
The first blow to the Chen family’s integrity comes when Ho is sentenced to juvenile detention. The second comes when a woman turns up on their doorstep to announce that her 15-year-old ward Yu is pregnant by Ho. The third and most devastating comes when Hao commits suicide. Ho is released early for good behaviour, but finds the family shattered: Wen disowns him and won’t speak to him. And there’s a major aftershock three years later when Radish is released from jail and starts pressuring Ho for “favours” to discharge his “debt”.
Two key motifs govern the sprawling but never discursive plot. The father Wen keeps parroting the Confucian motto of the driving school where he works: “Seize the day, decide your path.” This is in tune with the KMT state ideology of Taiwan in the 60s and 70s, when it was reflected in numerous ‘improving’ melodramas about social cohesion made by the government’s own film studio, and it finds an ironic echo in Ho’s pragmatic (but not entirely principled) break with his delinquent past as he works to provide for his young wife and newborn son.
Not as ironic, though, as Wen’s failure to live by the motto himself: he retreats into a sullen silence when his favoured son kills himself and his unloved second son “lets him down”. The discovery late in the film that Hao kept but never used the driving-school diaries (the motto emblazoned on the cover each year) given by Wen suggests that it meant little to him either; indeed, he may have felt it as one more aspect of the pressure from his father to succeed.
The other key motif, deployed throughout the film, is sunlight and shade – revealed to have been at the forefront of Hao’s mind at the time of his suicide by his classmate and potential girlfriend Zhen. She describes their visit to Taipei Zoo (where Hao observed that even the wild animals seek the shade) and reads out the final text she received from Hao, in which he complained that he felt trapped in sunlight, the shade beyond his reach. This motif is announced in the film’s Chinese title: Yangguang Pu Zhao translates literally as ‘Sunlight Spreads Everywhere’ and more poetically (with apologies to Jonathan Safran Foer) as ‘Everything Is Illuminated’.
This is the closest the film comes to ‘explaining’ Hao’s suicide, but the motif reaches a kind of summation in the closing scene of Ho taking his mother for a ride through dappled sunlight on a stolen bicycle. The scene inverts both the night, rain and blood of the opening scene and Qin’s memory (seen in flashback) of Ho as an infant demanding to be taken on extended bike-rides by his mother.
The film is accordingly careful not to illuminate many matters too brightly. Much of the psychology is left to the viewer’s conjectures, although there’s plenty of detail – and much in the facial expressions and reactions of the unimprovable cast – to fuel a sense of knowing and understanding these characters.
Some of the details refer back to director-writer Chung Mong-Hong’s earlier films, which remain unaccountably little-known in the West. The delinquent who loses his hand, for instance, and who reappears late in the film to teach Ho what it feels like to be disabled, had a prototype in Chung’s fiction debut Parking (2008), played there as an ex-gangster by Jack Kao. Troubled father-son relationships recur throughout his work. And the situation of an uncomprehending father losing his son to suicide stretches right back to his early documentary feature Doctor (2006), made in the US.
Chung, who also photographs his films under his Japanese pseudonym Nakashima Nagao, brings uncommon skills to both his invention of incidents and his depictions of characters growing through formative experiences. He has a parallel career as one of Taiwan’s most successful directors of commercials (he has written about working as DP on many of them for Hou Hsiao-Hsien), but makes a ‘personal’ feature film every two to three years and has a fairly spectacular track record: The Fourth Portrait (2010), Soul (2013) and Godspeed (2016) are all adventurous movies with clever narrative twists and deeply felt emotions, spiked with black humour and the odd terrifying glimpse of violence.
But A Sun trumps all his previous work, partly because it has more interesting female characters, partly because it makes less of its genre underpinnings, and mostly because its vision of social hardships and travails is so warmly inclusive.
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