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.