A Sun film poster.
A Sun is an expansive, 2019 Taiwanese dramatic film directed and co-written by Chung Mong-hong, director of the 2008 film Parking (debut film) and the 2016 Godspeed (most recent film before A Sun). It is Taiwan's official entry for the Best International Feature Film at the 93rd Academy Awards (April 2021) and currently is available to watch on Netflix.
The film centers on the Chen Family: the father Wen (Chen Yi-wen 陳以文) a burnt out driving instructor, the mother Qin (Samantha Ko 柯淑勤) an industrious hair stylist for strippers, older brother A-Hao (Greg Hsu 許光漢) the picture perfect student, younger brother A-Ho (Wu Chien-ho 巫建和) the delinquent troublemaker. The film starts with A-Ho and his partner in crime Radish (Liu Kuan-ting 劉冠廷) intent on scaring a rival thug Oden (Chang Li-Tung 張立東) at a restaurant with a machete, but Radish–being a loose cannon–takes things overboard landing him and A-Ho in jail.
The film follows their lives in the five years after that incident, during which a tragedy happens from which the title of the film takes its name. The Chinese title 陽光普照 (yángguāng pǔzhào) means "sunlight shines over all things" hinting at how the sun's rays spreads out evenly across space and generally has a positive connotation. However, the film subverts this meaning: sure the sun is fair and shines over all equally, but there are those that can find shade out of the sun's intense rays and there are others that cannot find cover from the sun's heat. The title calls to mind Jiang Wen's In the Heat of the Sun (阳光灿烂的日子 yángguāng cànlàn de rìzi) which is a nostalgic film looking at the past, while this film lives in the painful present with hope for a brighter future.
What I find interesting is how terse, yet fitting the English title "A Sun" is. In the film, when Wen is asked how many children he has, Wen–embarrased by the actions of his son–lies and says he only has one son, a lie he makes throughout the whole film, though the lie shifts in meaning. Thus the phonetic play on the word sun/son carries with it a dramatic subtext.
The film has moments of dark humor that break up the tension. However, sometimes the humorous scenes are stretched a bit long: in one scene Oden's father (Chih-Ju lin 林志儒) hijacks a sanitation truck and uses the shit shooting hose to threaten Wen to give money towards his son's bail. The situation is hilarious, however, it drags and also doesn't seem to fit well with the tone of the film. Also some of the light hearted music choices that are overlaid over some of the serious, dramatic scenes felt out of place.
A Sun has multiple storylines threading through it, but it doesn't feel fully serviced in the film. I feel that this movie may have worked better as a limited series than as a feature film. I felt that the story started a bit early, introducing characters like A-Hao's maybe-girlfriend Xiao-Zhen (Chen-Ling Wen aka Forest Wen 温貞菱) whose role only disappears in the second half of the film.
However, given that this is in the feature film medium, the film narrative might've been better serviced if it started later in the timeline and skipped over some of the events it shows. The film before and after the tragedy do not seem that connected and when the film skips ahead three years, this connective narrative tissue is further strained.
A still from A Sun,
When tragedy hits the family, it's an incredible shock not just for the family, but for the viewer as well. I'm conflicted about this: on one hand as a viewer, I'm in the similar boat as the family, not sure if I missed something or how I should process this loss. On the otherhand, it feels like it's coming out of left field and it's a bit of a narrative cheat, i.e. it throws in a dramatic turn that definitely surprises the audience but it doesn't feel motivated by the narrative thus far. Again, it may take a second viewing for me to fully process it.
Despite some of the narrative difficulties, the performances are strong. I particularly enjoy the intensity that the male lead Wu Chien Ho brings to his character. I first saw him in Days We Stared at the Sun (他們在畢業的前一天爆炸， 2010) and again in the excellent film The Kids（小孩，2015) in which he plays a very similar character. It seems he's been typecasted into playing aggressive male youths (much younger than his real age of 27) who grow up too soon and despite their stoic exterior, have a warm heart. I'm all for it, and he plays the switch between violent aggressor to vulnerable victim incredibly well. Fun fact: he and Chen-Ling Wen are the main leads in The Kids, and both return together in this film, but don't share a scene together.
Samantha Ko also brings an aura of strength and vulnerability through her gazes. We get a sense she really has done the best she can as a mother, but carries a deep wound that despite all her effort, it's not enough to save her children. Another standout performance is Liu Kuan Ting. As Radish, with his dyed hair and crazy smile, Liu brings this dark Joker vibe to the character that keeps me on the edge of my seat. He's a powderkeg ready to erupt at any moment whose intensity matches well with Wu who is trying to turn over a new leaf.
Overall, A Sun's key draw for me are the actors. The stories are interesting and it uses the city and jail environments well. However, the film drags a bit at certain points and lacks a level of cohesive narrative structure as a feature film. I do enjoy that the film touches on different themes of family and responsibility and incorporates elements of Taiwanese and Chinese culture (such as the story of Sima Guang). I hope the submission to the Academy Awards brings more attention to Taiwanese cinema and that this film gets more recognition than it did in 2020.
A still from A Sun with Liu Kuan Ting (left) and Wu Chien Ho (right).