It’s hard to imagine how a staggering two-and-a-half-hour epic from an established auteur could play the Toronto International Film Festival, win the most prestigious movie award from its country of origin, receive a simultaneous worldwide release, and still manage to almost completely escape the attention of American critics, but the strange and singularly modern fate that befell Chung Mong-hong’s “A Sun” will only become more familiar in a world so flooded with content that even major works of art can sink into the murk like shipwrecks. Movies have never been more accessible, and they’ve never been harder to find.
If this particular case is uncommonly illustrative of the situation at hand, that’s because of the disconnect between the specialness of the movie and the indifference with which it was dropped into the bottom of the streaming world’s biggest ocean. It’s understandable that most critics and Netflix subscribers have never heard of “A Sun,” but it’s telling that Netflix itself didn’t seem to be aware of the movie when Variety Chief Film Critic Peter Debruge — one of only nine people whose review of the film is listed on Rotten Tomatoes — began emailing the company’s publicists about it in September (in fairness to them, the pandemic has disrupted the usual festival-to-streaming pipeline, and “A Sun” has been denied many of the opportunities for exposure it might have received otherwise). There’s just too much to see for anyone to keep a watchful eye on it all.
So as the line between criticism and curation begins to blur even more than it already has, it’s hard to overstate the impact of the statement Debruge made by aiming a spotlight at “A Sun” and naming such an obscure title the best film of 2020 in the pages of Variety. For many of the other critics reading along (this one included), that was the first time Chung’s sprawling family drama had popped up on their radar. It’s safe to say that Netflix is aware of the movie now.
A stylish but unexpectedly sober tale of crime and punishment that finds its 55-year-old director pivoting away from the more heightened tone of his three previous features (“Parking,” “Soul,” and “Godspeed,” none of which are on Netflix) for a riveting moral odyssey that mixes elements of broad comedy, ultra-violence, melodrama, and even a splash of animation into the slow-boiling stew of everyday human existence. It starts with a psychopathic gangster amputating a chef’s hand into a vat of hot soup, it ends with a warm moment of grace more than 20 years in the making, and it bridges the time in between with a matter-of-fact story so attuned to the moral velocity of real life that you don’t appreciate the opera of it all until the final curtain call.
If any 155-minute Taiwanese family saga invites easy comparisons to Edward Yang’s unassailable “Yi Yi,” Chung’s film earns them for how skillfully it mutes together the mundane with the profound, so that joy and sorrow become almost indistinguishable from each other and every passing second contains the same precious amount of time.
“A Sun” dawns in the middle of the night with a slick and feverish sequence that will forever shape the lives of everyone involved (but what doesn’t?). A scrawny, severe-looking teenager named A-Ho (Wu Chien-ho) and his machete-wielding childhood friend Radish (Liu Kuan-ting) rush into a busy restaurant to scare one of their rivals, but the ever-hungry Radish can’t stop himself from disarming the guy in a more literal sense. It doesn’t matter that A-Ho wasn’t the one holding the knife, his driving instructor dad Mr. Chen (Chen Yi-wen) is sick of his youngest son being such a screw-up, and the kid’s involvement in this assault is the last straw.
Mr. Chen and his family are holding on by a thread as it is, and the hapless patriarch has long seen A-Ho as little more than a liability — especially compared to his first-born, the blemish-free golden boy A-Hao (Xu Guang-han), who’s on track to attend the med school of his choice. Mr. Chen’s preference between his two sons is not subtle. During A-Ho’s trial for the restaurant attack, Mr. Chen leaves work so that he can go to the court and insist that his son be locked up for as long as possible (he’ll have to settle for juvenile detention). From there, Mr. Chen drives straight to A-Hao’s cram school, where he hands his favorite child a couple of notebooks engraved with his personal motto: “Seize the day. Decide your path.”
So far as Mr. Chen is concerned, making one’s way through the world should be as orderly as navigating a car along a city street. In an unsolicited lecture to a class of confused students with more practical concerns, he insists that “As long as you grip the steering wheel, stop when you see a red light, and accelerate slowly when there’s a green light, then the road of life will be smooth and sound.” It’s an odd philosophy to hear from a caustic and cash-strapped under-achiever who was born poor and denied the right of way ever since, but Mr. Chen needs to believe that staying in his lane and going with the flow of traffic is the safest way to get wherever he’s going, otherwise he might spin out with rage at the dead-end he’s been driving towards for so many decades. As he barks at one student who doesn’t want to learn in a vehicle with automatic transmission: “If a car moves, you’re driving — who cares if it’s manual or not?”
Over the course of the film that follows, Mr. Chen’s pathological conviction that people are completely free to make their own fate begins to buckle under its own pressure; what first seems to be a generational symptom of growing up under martial law soon becomes shaded by hypocrisy and self-loathing before taking its final shape as an extraordinary cross to bear. The potholes come fast and furious as A-Ho and A-Hao’s respective trajectories crisscross in unexpected yet wrenchingly believable ways, and it’s transfixing to watch Mr. Chen and his family re-route their lives as the disasters pile up around them; some movies ask to be watched, “A Sun” invites you to rubberneck.
We initially feel a certain remove from both of Mr. Chen’s sons, as the sullen A-Ho hides behind a veil of delinquent shame while his perfect older brother — as blank as he is brilliant — seems to grow detached from his schoolwork. Someone memorably diagnoses A-Hao by saying that he “gave all his goodness to others, and forgot to keep any for himself.” At its most ambivalent, Chung’s rich but rigid framing evokes the films of Michael Haneke, as the boys are dislocated from their environments and the people around them. One shot of A-Hao zoning out in a sea full of students epitomizes Chung’s unfussy eye for mundane poetry, and the power of that composition is doubled an hour later when the film revisits it in a very different context (it’s among the many shiver-inducing echoes and callbacks that flare through “A Sun” and make use of its incredible sweep).
It’s the women, then, who draw us into the folds of this story — not through their vulnerability, but rather through their agency. Or at least their urgency. Chen clan matriarch Miss Qin (Samantha Ko) might subscribe to her husband’s way of thinking and act similarly insensitive towards A-Ho, but her sense of family values is shaken early on when a stranger (Wen Chen-ling) confronts her with her adopted teenage daughter Xiao Yu (Wu Dai-ling) in tow, and claims that the girl is pregnant with the incarcerated A-Ho’s child. What is Miss Qin’s responsibility to these people? What does she owe them? What happened to the little boy who used to ride on the back of her bicycle when he was a kid, and refused to let go even when it was time to go inside?
Such nuanced questions carry “A Sun” forward through time like the currents of a river that runs deeper than it does wide, and only gains momentum with each of its gentle bends and shocking forks. Or maybe it’s the bends that are shocking, and the forks that are gentle. A-Hao’s journey is perhaps the most unpredictable, but Chung elides the character’s defining moment in a way that viscerally emphasizes the destabilizing effect it has on his family. A-Ho’s growth unfolds in much the same way, as the fuck-up’s tender maturation into fatherhood happens with the same invisible gradation that it does in real life, and mostly off-screen.
Mr. Chen, on the other hand, seems to remain more superficially consistent than anyone else in this story, but his unraveling makes for the film’s most violent, extreme, and soul-purifying character arc of them all by the end, as the fallout from A-Ho and Radish’s crime will follow him forever unless he’s willing to shift gears and confront his role in it. He does, of course, but in an arrestingly undidactic fashion that’s inflected with savage brutality and broad toilet humor in equal measure (at one point someone sprays Mr. Chen’s driving school with liquid sewage), and then galvanized together in the end with the novelistic ache of a Lee Chang-dong movie.
There are moments of high drama and harrowing tension along the way, as “A Sun” increasingly threatens to drop the façade and become a full-blown crime saga (it even has a scene where someone is spirited into a black van full of gun-toting gangsters), but Chung’s poignant is all the more powerful for its even-keeled approach. Whether delving into a self-implosive dad, coercing one of its leads into an ill-advised attack on a police station, or re-litigating a famous episode from the childhood of 11th century scholar Sima Guang, “A Sun” stays in place as we orbit around it, the film unfolding with a tonal consistency that makes it hard to see the roads that its characters are traveling, let alone how these people might be able to alter their respective destinations.
Life isn’t a paved road with two lanes and shoulders on either side, it’s an infinite series of overlapping intersections that lead God knows where and result in God knows what. On a long enough timeline — or in a long enough movie — “Seize the day” and “decide your path” can start to seem like contradictory directives that only account for the things we can control, and blind us to the wisdom required to accept the things we can’t. In the span between when “A Sun” rises and sets, the harrowing transformations experienced by Mr. Chen and his family cast a brilliant light on the serenity that comes from being able to recognize that difference.
There’s no guarantee that the wave of new attention dredged up by Debruge’s top 10 list will be enough to make a difference for Chung’s film in the Oscar race — not when Netflix is also representing at least three other contenders for Best International Feature — but it could be enough to convince the algorithm to bring the movie a bit closer to the surface for the rest of this awards season and perhaps even some time beyond. These days, that’s all someone can really hope to achieve with their advocacy.
Because despite what the most tragic character in Chung’s film might tell you, the sun does not shine equally on all things in this world.
“A Sun” is now streaming on Netflix.