Taiwanese cinema is a unique topic to explore, largely because it’s dominated by independent films due to underfunding and is greatly overshadowed by Chinese films. The Golden Horse Film Festival and Awards, which is essentially Taiwan’s Oscars, commonly awards Best Picture (called Best Feature Film) to Chinese productions instead of Taiwanese productions. Too often, the tiers of quality are just not comparable.
However, the most recent Golden Horse Awards (the 56th) is an interesting one. The political tensions between Taiwan and China this time led to some unprecedented events. Films from mainland China were completely absent from the nominees. Hong Kong director Johnnie To later resigned his position as jury president.
Thus, the spotlight was on Taiwanese cinema, and the film that walked home with the most wins was a drama called A Sun. Having won a total of six awards, including Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Feature Film, the film caught my attention and was even recommended to me by several folks. Having now seen A Sun, I think the future is very bright (pardon the pun) for Taiwanese cinema, despite a couple of drawbacks.
Juggling Three Storylines
Directed and co-written by Chung Mong-hong, A Sun chronicles the life and struggles of one middle-class Taiwanese family. The mother (Samantha Ko) stays at home, while the father (Chen Yi-Wen) works as a driving instructor. They have two sons: the older brother A-Hao (Greg Hsu) is doing everything he can to get into a good medical school, while the younger brother A-Ho (Wu Chien-ho) is violent, delinquent, and just recently got caught up in a horrible crime and is ready to serve three years in a youth detention center. It’s easy to guess which son is more favored in the father’s eyes.
Then things get more and more complicated as the film goes on. Across its two hour and 36-minute runtime, A Sun juggles three storylines together at once:
- A tale of two brothers who, through tragedies and hardships, trade places in life and in their father’s eyes; a story akin to Brothers;
- A tale of a man serving his time while his family is left to “clean up his mess,” including a woman who is now pregnant with his child, as the film explores themes of forgiveness, redemption, and choice; a story akin to If Beale Street Could Talk;
- A tale of a man who learns that once he steps inside a life of crime and gangsters, he could never escape it, no matter how hard he tries; a story akin to 鬥魚, a famous Taiwanese TV series based on The Outsiders.
Directing the Film vs Writing the Film
Chung Mong-hong directs A Sun with great restraint. Like filmmakers Hirokazu Kore-eda, Barry Jenkins, and Lulu Wang, Chung lets his camera sit and observe characters. You’ve got your necessary close-ups to sell the turmoil brewing within someone’s psyche, but most of the time, there’s a distance between the people and us, the observer.
With this approach, there’s always a sense of space and a sense of the air everyone is breathing in. You can almost smell the streets, and they bring back fond memories of when I visited my relatives in Chiayi, Taiwan. Pretty soon, this family we’re following in the film will feel like real people Chung just found in some neighborhood.
Unlike most Asian dramas, which are designed to wring every tear out of you, A Sun just sits calmly and trusts the audience to take in the heavy emotional pain each character goes through. There’s not much music; most of the time we’re hearing ambient sounds. It’s a realistic and authentic way to tell this story.
The problem with the film, in my opinion, is the writing. For a film that is so restrained in direction, it certainly tries too hard, reaches too far, and bites off more than it could chew in terms of plot and narrative. From start to finish, the film juggles three storylines and they never quite mesh seamlessly. It often feels like you’re watching two different films at once. Each of those storylines have their own build-ups and payoffs, and there are times where you’re expecting the payoff of one but instead you get the build-up of another.
There were at least three places in the film where I thought it was about to end in fifteen minutes, but it kept going; sometimes I started to wonder what the film is really about.
The Performances are Fantastic and the Emotion Still Lands
Despite the film overcomplicating itself at times, A Sun works largely thanks to the direction but also the performances.
Chen Yi-Wen’s father character is as blunt as ever. His words sting and his attitude sounds like he doesn’t care, but Chen sells the despair that always stays on his face. Sitting opposite Chen’s stern demeanor is Samantha Ko’s gentle aura as the mother, whose kindness extends to everyone, not just her own family. Her motivation to do the right thing, even with so much pain deep down, reminded me of Regina King’s performance in Beale Street.
As for the two sons, both Greg Hsu and Wu Chien-ho nail that blank stare. At some point, when you cry too much, there’s no more tears left. You’re left with nothing but numbness. These two young actors perfectly capture that state of numbness, of emotional purgatory. In their minds, change will never come. Things will not get better. Of course, change is exactly one of the key themes that Chung wanted to highlight in the film, and I think he succeeded.
A Sun: Hope for the Light in a Life of Darkness
Chung takes heavy, economic, social, and intimate struggles of one middle-class family and trusts the audience to find something relatable and universal in their story.
Despite the premise sounding extremely depressing, the script still has its moments of levity. Even though I’m not the biggest fan of the script having so much plot, I was a big fan of the dialogue. Almost instantly, the dialogue tells us what the father is like and what the younger son is like. They barely interact in the film, but you already know from how they speak that they probably clashed a lot in the past.
One of the most repeated phrases in the film is “Seize the day. Decide your path.” It’s literally painted on a bridge near the driving school where the father works, and he ironically uses that phrase every day without following it himself. Really, at the end of the day, A Sun is about moving forward and becoming better. It’s about change and internal transformation, that even in a tough life constantly in darkness, the light will always be there to embrace you so long as you have the hope and drive to keep reaching out.
Did you see A Sun? What did you think of the film? Share below!
A Sun was released in theaters in Taiwan on November 1, 2019. It is currently available for streaming on Netflix.
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