Familiar elements in South Korean cinema come together in subtle, interesting ways in "A Family," a restrained and involving portrait of a widower and his two children whose life together is redefined by the daughter's criminal connections. Exposure at Western fests could lead to some niche business, especially in Europe.
Familiar elements in South Korean cinema come together in subtle, interesting ways in “A Family,” a restrained and involving portrait of a widower and his two children whose life together is redefined by the daughter’s criminal connections. Anchored by a marvelously understated perf from vet Ju Hyeon as the father, and with quietly purposeful playing by bigscreen newcomer Su Ae as the daughter, this fall release racked up a meaty 2 million admissions locally despite its lack of razzle-dazzle. Exposure at Western fests could lead to some niche business, especially in Europe.
Released on parole after three years in prison for serial pickpocketing — during which time her mother has died — Lee Jeong-eun (Su) is welcomed by her 8-year-old brother, Jeong-hwan (Park Ji-bin), who thinks she’s been studying abroad, but coolly received by her dad, Ju-seok (Ju). A former cop who retired when he lost the sight of one eye, Ju-seok now runs a small fishmongery and berates Jeong-eun for coming home only because of “the money under the floor.”
Jeong-eun looks up the crime boss she used to work for, Park Chang-weon (Park Heui-sun), now a violent psychotic who claims she stole money from him. Jeong-eun denies it, even after Chang-weon smashes an ashtray across her face, but flashbacks show she’s lying. When Chang-weon starts putting the squeeze on her father for the cash, Jeong-eun is caught between saving her nest egg and protecting the family she’s only just beginning to understand.
Firsttime writer-director Lee Jeong-cheol flavors the simple story with a mass of small details that enriches the emotional texture, as the daughter learns more about the father she’s always disliked. Just when the two seem to have reached a kind of understanding, and the beginnings of a genuine father-daughter love, Jeong-eun is faced with another major decision when one of Chang-weon’s men (Eom Tae-ung) asks her help in icing the now out-of-control boss.
Su, previously in TV dramas, takes what could easily have been just another insolent teddy-girl role and invests it with calm, purposeful defiance, the slowly healing wound on her face a perpetual reminder of her inner toughness. Her reined-back perf is matched by Ju’s as the grizzled old father, nowhere more movingly than in a late-on scene where she helps him shave in front of a mirror.
Lensing of wintry backstreets and subdued interiors is clean and unaffected, in service of the actors. Music score underplays the potentially melodramatic elements until the powerful, slow-mo finale, prior to a touchingly simple close. Running time is just right.