Next time someone asks what’s good on Netflix, you might want to point them to this winner that’s been lurking there since January 2020. A victor at the Golden Horse Awards and now shortlisted for the International Feature Film Oscar, A Sun is a bold, involving tale of crime, punishment, tragedy and healing — all within a seemingly ordinary family of four in Taiwan.
The trouble, and the film, starts when a teenager known as A-ho (Wu Chien-Ho), storms into a restaurant with Radish, who’s wielding a machete. A-ho, we later learn, thinks they are going to scare a boy called Oden, but Radish goes one step further and slices Oden’s hand off, catapulting it into a pan of hot, fresh soup. It’s clear that this film means business. But while the opening has the violence and flourish of a gangster movie, writer-director Chung Mong-hong (Parking) takes a more thoughtful approach to the resulting angst. After A-ho is sent to juvenile detention, we spend many years with this family, witnessing key moments of their struggles, whether behind bars or back home with father, mother and elder brother A-Hao (Hsu Kuang-Han).
Glimpses of dark humor surface throughout the film. Father A-Wen (Chen Yi-Wen) works as driving instructor, which provides rich comic ground even before Oden’s father arrives with a sewage truck that sprays feces at A-Wen and his colleagues. A-ho explains multiplication to a cellmate in terms he can understand: selling various quantities of bags of amphetamines, or suffering a certain amount of stab wounds. The specter of crime looms large mostly in the background of A Sun, but it contributes to a general sense of unease and impending doom, as well as a shocking near-ending.
As with all his films since Parking, director Chung also serves as cinematographer under the pseudonym of Nagao Nakashima. The results are stunning but can be distractingly showy. The camera creeps up on rooms and people like a stalker, plunging into their intimate orbit like a knife. A shot lingers on a group of birds in formation, or animals in a zoo — one imagines a lot of time was spent waiting for nature to oblige or surprise. Light and shadow are key: many shots offer both, and play a part in the event that gives rise to the title A Sun.
Many key moments involve communication, or the lack thereof. Father A-Wen initially refuses to turn up at the court hearing to speak on his son’s behalf. Reluctantly, he attends — and then urges the judge to put the boy away. He is so averse to discussing personal matters that he complains about friendly learner drivers, calling them “nosy, gossipy women.” When pressed, he tells them that he only has one son: the clever, kind, would-be medic A-Hao. But it turns out that A-Hao has his communication problems, too.
A-Wen’s wife, Qin (Samantha Ko) is more comfortable discussing emotional matters, but tellingly, only women seem to listen. A few poignant conversation scenes pair her with younger women that come into the family’s life. They’re revealing and emotionally charged, powered by Ko’s nuanced performance. A-Ho largely keeps his emotions in, which implicitly contributes to his incarceration. The final scenes when both father and son finally open up are powerful, but they may not be what you expect. A Sun thrives on surprising the audience – and anyone who just happens across this on Netflix will certainly be in for a surprise.