As wrenching and resonant a cinematic experience as can be found in any country this year, Taiwanese stunner “A Sun” tells the story of two sons, one a top student poised to attend the med school of his choice, the other a raging delinquent whose latest scuffle lands him in a juvenile detention center. The former, A-Hao (Xu Guang-Han), makes his parents proud, whereas his younger brother, A-Ho (Wu Chien-Ho), is what you’d call a disappointment, if only his slip-ups weren’t so consistent with the rock-bottom expectations everyone has of his potential.
Over the course of two and a half hours, A-Ho and A-Hao will come to trade places in their parents’ minds. It’s not an easy switch, and the incident that compels their father, Mr. Chen (Chen Yi-Wen), and mother, Miss Qin (Samantha Ko), to reconsider their prejudices is a tough shock to swallow, since every one of writer-director Chung Mong-Hong’s key characters is so brilliantly realized, we can hardly bear that something terrible might befall any of them. Still, there’s a deep well of truth in “Parking” helmer Chung’s fifth narrative feature, and this unforgettable family drama promises both to devastate and to uplift audiences in virtually any country where a Mandarin-language masterpiece stands a chance at being released.
Winner of five Golden Horse Awards including best film, “A Sun” works a bit like Trey Edward Shults’ recent “Waves” or 1981 Oscar winner “Ordinary People,” in that all three films concern younger siblings who grew up in the shadow of a golden child — “a sun” of sorts — in whom their parents invested nearly all their attention, only to be thrust in the position of being the family’s new hope after a tragic setback. That description perhaps unfairly focuses on the film’s underlying themes, whereas Chung grabs audiences from the opening scene, as A-Ho and bad-boy best friend Radish (Liu Kuan-Ting) speed through slick city streets on a stolen motorbike, burst through the back entrance of a restaurant (à la “Goodfellas”) and confront an unsuspecting rival in such a violent way, viewers sense that anything could happen going forward.
Both young men are swiftly caught and held accountable for their actions. Instead of defending the boy, Mr. Chen sees this as the last straw, asking the judge for a harsh sentence in order to teach his son a lesson. And so A-Ho is sent to a juvenile detention facility, while the film turns its attention to the rest of the Chen family, and his seemingly perfect older brother in particular. Compared with scrawny, easy-to-anger A-Ho, A-Hao comes across as tall, handsome and well-adjusted, albeit a bit shy for the prom-king type.
There’s more to his character than meets the eye, but then, that’s true of virtually everyone in this ensemble. One of the things that makes “A Sun” so satisfying is how and when Chung chooses to reveal his characters’ secrets. For example, not long after A-Ho is sent away, a woman (Wen Chen-Ling) shows up at his family’s door with her adopted daughter, Xiao Yu (Wu Dai-Ling), who is pregnant with A-Ho’s child. Chung will share the details of Yu’s past in time, but for now, this one revelation is plenty. Miss Qin struggles to do the right thing, and as the more responsible sibling, A-Hao steps up to assist.
And then something irreversible happens that upsets the already fragile balance within the Chen clan. “Seize the day. Decide your path,” Mr. Chen is fond of saying, repeating the phrase not only to his sons — especially A-Hao, in whom he sees the brightest future — but also to the bewildered students at the driving school where he works. Of course, life is too complicated for “carpe diem” to cut it. With A-Ho is in detention, the family is stuck cleaning up the boy’s messes — sometimes quite colorfully, like the time the victim’s father comes to visit Mr. Chen at the workplace, demanding some kind of financial compensation. When Mr. Chen refuses, the man returns with a septic truck, dousing the parking lot in a shower of shit.
In this and so many other ways, “A Sun” surprises, presenting unexpected interactions between an ensemble of memorable, well-acted characters, each of whom has good reason to behave as they do. Only Radish comes off as reductively one-dimensional, but even then, Chung’s script gives him fair motive to feel so vindictive — the reason for which reveals itself after both he and A-Ho have been released from prison. In the film’s tense second half, where it takes an uncomfortable turn into crime-movie territory, Radish pressures his old friend to repay a karmic debt, thereby complicating the young man’s attempts to go straight. A-Ho is now a husband and father, after all, to say nothing of the way his relationship toward his parents has changed.
Ancient Greece’s greatest playwrights recognized the dramatic potential of family dynamics. And whereas contemporary movies so often complicate their plots, “A Sun” understands and explores a universal aspect of any multi-sibling family: Parents tend not to treat their children equally. Quite late in the film, Mr. Chen finally concedes his mistake: “I never acknowledged A-Ho,” he admits, stunning his wife with a story of parental love unparalleled in recent cinema.
In 2008, Chung’s debut narrative feature, “Parking,” premiered at Cannes, though he’s slipped off the international radar a bit since then. Remember, Taiwan is the country that gave us Edward Yang and Ang Lee — the best-known talents of their respective generations to emerge there. With “A Sun,” Chung proves a worthy successor for whatever the third wave of New Taiwanese Cinema might be called. Chung’s command of the medium is astonishing at times, though what’s more impressive is his restraint, including the way he trusts composer Lin Sheng-Xiang’s minimalist score — capped by an end-credits guitar song Lin performs himself — to subtly emphasize the underlying emotions.
In addition to its potent family concerns, “A Sun” questions whether people are capable of change, as well as whether we can change people’s impressions of us. Over the course of the film, Wu undergoes the most remarkable transformation as A-Ho, delivering a performance that’s entirely relatable, and never less than entirely convincing. His last scene is pure poetry, as the movie pays off an earlier story to find two of its characters sharing a moment in the sun.