One of the defining traits of Korean cuisine — the epic number of side dishes — seems to have given writer-director Kim Dong-hyun (“Hello, Stranger”) the inspiration for “The Dinner,” an eight-course family melodrama with too many trimmings and no real main course. An earnest but incredibly slow-moving, digressive and frequently implausible attempt to show ordinary people struggling with the everyday hardships of work and family, Kim’s third feature lacks the sharply drawn characters and social insights a director like Japan’s Hirokazu Kore-eda brings to his own similar-themed multi-generational ensemblers. Distribs and fests are unlikely to ask for seconds following the pic’s Busan world preem.
Economic strife, debilitating illness, custody battles, even manslaughter: You name it and “The Dinner” probably has it, though little if any of those crises manage to enliven the movie’s dreary pulse. Opening scenes introduce Kim’s tragedy-prone clan via daughter Gyeong-jin (Lee Eun-joo), who has recently give birth to a son, Jay-hyeon, only to find herself abandoned by the boy’s father, who threatens that if Kyung-jin tries to stick him with custody he’ll put the kid up for adoption.
Some years pass, and we see that Jae-hyeon is being raised by his mother with the help of her elderly parents and her two brothers, older In-cheol (Jung Eui-gap) and younger In-ho (Jeon Kwang-jin). While In-ho lives in sin with his fiancee, In-cheol has a wife, Hye-jeong (Park Se-jin) afflicted with one of those mysterious movie ailments that might be cured by a move to the countryside with its “cleaner air.”
The already precariously balanced dominoes begin to fall when In-cheol gets laid off and finds temporary work as a private driver, which also happens to be student-loan-addled In-ho’s sole means of supporting himself. One fateful night, the younger brother lets a drunk, belligerent client get the best of him and retaliates in a manner that may be responsible for causing the man’s accidental death. Which, instead of reporting, a panicked In-ho decides to cover up, with a little help from big bro.
Lots more bad things happen to basically good people over “The Dinner’s” needlessly padded 125 minutes, but the characters are so bland and the tone of the pace of the film so lurching and ponderous that it’s hard to work up much concern for how any of it pans out. Kim brings no more urgency to a police interrogation scene than he does to a family dinner — of which there are many here, though no single one is afforded any more importance than another. (Perhaps the message here is that life itself is one big dinner — you never know what kind of food-borne illness you’re going to get.) Elsewhere, a character who suffers a nervous breakdown in one scene seems perfectly rehabilitated in the next, and a father who never cared about the raising of his son suddenly decides that he does, and then just as quickly decides he doesn’t again.
The actors do what they can with the material, though only Jung projects any sense of a complex inner life, or that his character might be thinking or feeling something not directly expressed by his dialogue. Widescreen lensing lacks any visual dynamism and has a foggy, washed-out look that is hard to account for in the HD era.