Taiwanese Masterpiece ‘A Sun’ Has Been Hiding in Plain Sight All Year (Column)

Film critic Peter Debruge's favorite film of 2020 has been widely available on Netflix since last January. Director Chung Mong-hong explains what the film says about his home country, and why this family drama is too universal to be overlooked.

A Sun - Taiwan

Last February, just before the pandemic upended virtually everything about how the film industry operates, “Parasite” made history at the Academy Awards. The ingenious South Korean thriller became the first international film to “overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles” and win best picture, as director Bong Joon Ho phrased it at the podium.

But that was just one of the many barriers to “Parasite’s” potential success. Asia — which has produced some of the world’s most gifted directors — has had a particularly difficult time being recognized with the Academy. Hard to believe, but when Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” was nominated for best picture in 2000, it had been a full 45 years since an Asian film had won Oscar’s foreign language prize (that film was “Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto”).

European movies do fine in what’s now known as the “international feature” category — especially those from the four “FIGS” markets, where French, Italian, German and Spanish are spoken. But Asia, and especially East Asia, has gone largely overlooked by the Academy, despite the fact that, in this critic’s estimation, three of the most important films of the 21st century hail from that corner of the globe: Edward Yang’s “Yi Yi: A One and a Two” (Taiwan), Lee Chang-dong’s “Secret Sunshine” (South Korea) and Wong Kar Wai’s “In the Mood for Love” (Hong Kong) make my top 10 of the 2000s.

Now, add to that another masterpiece: “A Sun,” a wrenching and ultimately redemptive family drama from Taiwanese director Chung Mong-hong. From its very first scene, the film is a knockout, and one that touches on universal themes of a family shaken by tragedy, even as its story doubles as a critique of Taiwan today — in much the same way “Parasite” can be enjoyed by anyone, while offering extra layers for those familiar with Korean culture.

Turns out, even before “Parasite” made its unprecedented breakthrough at the Oscars — four wins, which signaled not only that the Academy’s push for a more global membership was having an impact but also that a foreign film had become such a phenomenon that it could topple its English-language competition for Hollywood’s highest prize — “A Sun” had been released with virtually no fanfare in the U.S.

I didn’t even realize it at the time, but Netflix had quietly acquired this powerful film — which I’d been fortunate enough to see on the festival circuit in fall 2019 — and slipped it onto the platform on Jan. 24, 2020. That’s not entirely unusual. Netflix acquires and distributes plenty of overseas treasures (this one won five Golden Horse Awards in its native Taiwan), saving its publicity efforts for starry original productions like “Marriage Story” and “Mank.”

But “A Sun” has become something of a personal cause for me, and this week, with Oscar voting underway, it feels important to remind Academy members that the movie — which is among 15 contenders shortlisted for the international feature prize — is not just some obscure and impenetrable Asian film, but a treasure that’s been hiding in plain sight all year. Nor is Chung’s style the slightest bit difficult for Americans to grasp.

The filmmaker, who got an MFA in filmmaking from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, recognizes what it means to feel alienated by “foreign films.” By Chung’s own admission, he decided to study cinema after being frustrated by a screening of Greek director Theo Angelopoulos’ four-hour “The Traveling Players.” He was in college at the time, and it was not unusual for European art films that had received international festival acclaim to screen in Taiwan. This one dealt with “a lot of chaos, battles, situations and social unrest” but to Chung felt like “watching people walking around” for four hours, so he fell asleep. “For Westerners, it may be easy to understand, but for us, it is very inaccessible.”

While “A Sun” is also informed by culturally specific elements, Chung was careful not to make those obstacles to the audience. “If we want to talk about inspirations and ideas for this film, we probably have to think about history after the KMT, the previous communist party, relocated from China to Taiwan in 1949,” he says. From then until China lifted martial law almost four decades later, Chung explains, “we went through a lot of suppression and oppressions. After we opened up in the 1990s, everything became liberated, but at the same time, it also became very chaotic.” During this time, he says, “Taiwan has become more and more uninhabitable.”

After finishing his previous film, “Godspeed,” Chung was reflecting on the state of his home country. “At that time, Taiwan went through a very important election, just like what you did last year in America,” he says. “My father lived in the center of Taiwan, and I went back home to visit him every month.” On one visit, he reconnected with an old high school friend whom he hadn’t seen in 40 years. “We talked about how he went out with his friends and chopped off someone’s hand. For me, it was just a story at the time — the kind of story you would read in the newspaper or see on TV — but it happened to someone I had known for a long time, so it had a significance.”

Not long afterward, however, Chung was having hot pot for dinner with his family, “and one image suddenly came to my mind: What if there was a hand floating in the hot pot?” he wondered. That visual inspired the opening scene of “A Sun,” which launches the film in motion with a shocking act of violence — but also serves a narrative purpose.

“The hands at the beginning are actually a metaphor,” the director explains. “These two hands, there’s a disconnection to them.” When one is severed from the body, “it becomes incomplete,” which is echoed a short time later in the film — about a traditional Taiwanese family with two sons. The elder sibling, A-Ho (Greg Hsu), is a shining all-achiever, doted on by his father (Chen Yi-wen) and bound for medical school. The younger, A-Hao (Greg Hsu), doesn’t get the same attention from his parents and acts out as if to compensate. Whether willing or not, he’s an accomplice to the brutal hot-pot behanding and sent to juvenile detention for his involvement.

But then something happens (a twist described in the next three paragraphs, so be aware of spoilers) that’s every bit as disorienting for the family as that opening scene was for the audience: Without warning or explanation, A-Ho commits suicide, and suddenly this family unit is without its right hand — or, to use another of the film’s symbols, it loses the son/sun on whom the father had focused all of his energy. Can the family adjust its orbit, now that its shining star has been snuffed and the black sheep is the only son that remains?

“In 2006, I made a documentary called ‘Doctor,’” Chung says. “During the filmmaking process, I spent two to three years with this father, whose son passed away. Some people claim that he committed suicide, but his father didn’t want to admit that, and at the end of the film, he still didn’t know what happened.” The mystery and unanswerable ambiguity of that situation informed how Chung treated A-Hao’s fate, where the cause of the character’s suicide was less important than how it affects the survivors.

“I think that the first documentary I made has a huge impact on me, even now,” he acknowledges. “Committing suicide is definitely a very strong statement. After such a huge incident happens to your life, ideas start to look differently now — just like warfare can create a huge impact on a society. So after the suicide, I believe the father, the mother, the younger brother, they will have a different perspective to reflect on everything that happens in their life.”

These two startling events impact audiences as well, putting them on edge for whatever surprises Chung might have in store — and while “A Sun” is certainly unpredictable, nothing quite so upsetting happens again.

“A few years ago, one of my films didn’t perform very well at the box office, and I started questioning why I make movies. My wife told me I should return to the basics and think about the original intention of why I make movies,” Chung says. Starting with “A Sun,” he explains, “I started to make movies either about something that I really understand or something that I don’t understand at all. If I make movies about something I understand, it’s a communication, or making films that I don’t understand at all, it means there’s an opportunity that I can think more about.”

In “A Sun,” the unanswered questions are focused on the microcosm of easily relatable father-son bonds, but as Chung points out, “I am actually using this family as a metaphor to embody or symbolize that the whole country is crumbling.” And Taiwan is hardly alone, as division and protests have sprung up in other countries as well. “Having trust between people has become a very critical issue around the world,” he adds — and that makes the film’s message of forgiveness and reconciliation all the more resonant to audiences.

Thinking internationally, the best-known Taiwanese filmmaker is no doubt Ang Lee, whose films “The Wedding Banquet” and “Eat Drink Man Woman” were nominated for Oscars in the early ’90s. Around the same time, Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-hsien were also attracting consideration acclaim for Taiwanese cinema. Today, even though Yang has died and Lee moved on to Hollywood, the local industry still operates in the shadow of these auteurs.

After film school, “when I returned to Taiwan, the situation with the film industry at the time was like a dead end,” Chung recalls. “At that time, the box office was terrible and no one was making movies in Taiwan. Many people will say that my films are similar to those made by Edward Yang, but I don’t actually have a lot of personal connections with him or Hou Hsiao-hsien. The film critics believe these ‘new waves’ actually inspired all the subsequent movies or directors, but all the things we have made subsequently cannot surpass them. I respect [those directors], but I don’t think that we should follow them anymore.”

“A Sun” is Chung’s fifth narrative feature and quite clearly the work of a major director, though few Americans know his name — this despite the fact that he began his career at Cannes (with 2008’s “Parking”) and has been an international festival name ever since. But with the movie readily available to anyone with a Netflix subscription, that’s easy enough to fix.

As it happens, the same week “A Sun” hit the streaming service, Korean American director Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari” was premiering at Sundance, offering yet another poignant example of strong Asian storytelling, this one a portrait of an immigrant family in Oklahoma — an American film shamefully relegated to the Golden Globes’ “foreign language” category.

The title of “A Sun” represents a play on words in English, involving family connections (“a son”) and the intense pressure of the sun itself — which has always been of fascination to the filmmaker, who serves as his own DP (as “Nagao Nakashima”) and is acutely aware of how to balance light and shade in his compositions. “If you translate literally the Chinese title, it means ‘Sunshine Everywhere,’” he says. It’s been more than two decades since “Crouching Tiger” gave Taiwan an Oscar vicotry. As Academy members’ horizons expand, there’s no reason “Parasite” should be the only Asian film to receive acclaim for the next 20 years — especially when there’s enough sunshine to go around.