Taiwan’s entry for the Academy Awards, A Sun (literal translation from Mandarin is Sunshine Illuminates Everything) is an interesting attempt at a poetic tale of a fractured family plagued by karmic tragedy. Directed and co-written by Chung Mong-hong, the film won the top prize at the Golden Horse Awards, which is the Chinese diaspora equivalent of the Oscars. A strong cast helps carry what is at times an intriguing and compelling story. Unfortunately, it also gets bogged down under its own thematic weight and becomes a disjointed slog in the process due to a lack of story structure.
The film begins with what I think is one of its strongest points, and that’s the use of an ironic soundtrack. Set to the tune of soft, upbeat music, teenagers Chen Jian Ho, nicknamed A-Ho (Wu Chien-ho) and his friend “Radish” (Liu Kuan-ting) drive through Taipei on their way to committing a pretty gruesome crime. The graphic imagery juxtaposed with the downright pleasant melody sets a clashing tone that I can definitely get behind. While the rest of the film isn’t nearly as brutal, the soundtrack remains to sort of tease and play tricks with the audience the rest of the way, making sure you never know what to expect. Chung certainly earns some points for this degree of creativity.
A-Ho is sentenced to three years in juvenile hall while Radish gets a much harsher sentence at an adult prison. A-Ho’s father, Wen (a fantastic Chen Yi-wen) essentially disowns him at this point, focusing entirely on his work as a driving instructor and on encouraging his elder son, A-Hao (Greg Hsu) to succeed in cram school and get into a good medical college. Wen’s wife, Qin (Samantha Ko), who styles hair at what appears to be a sex club, has more responsibility foisted upon her in the form of Xiao-Yu (Apple Wu), A-Ho’s 15-year-old pregnant girlfriend.
There’s a painfully obvious clash between the two brothers. A-Ho is a fuck-up and a petty criminal who knocked up a fellow teenager. A-Hao is the golden boy. He’s smart, passionate, and caring to a fault, giving of himself at every opportunity. He’s the glue that holds the family together, but when tragedy strikes, that all gets thrown into disarray, and the entire family has to reconcile with their past actions and each other.
The core theme of the film comes from A-Hao’s personal philosophy, that the most fair thing in the universe is the Sun, because it shines light on everything in equal amount, dissipating the darkness, with the only shade available if someone cowers behind another object or person. It’s a fairly poetic way of saying that the universe is indifferent to us, and in the grand scheme of things, there really is nowhere to hide. We are who we are, we do what we do, and when faced with the consequences of our actions, there’s no one to rely on to bail us out.
It’s an interesting thought, albeit a little trite, and the film does the necessary work to complement it. One of the more brilliant artistic touches in the film is to shoot and light each scene in such a way that shadows are minimal, both on the cast and on the surrounding scenery. No one can hide from anything, nor can they sneak up on anyone, which means the multiple confrontations in the film have to be dealt with in the open, whether it’s a bad driving student or mob reprisals. So at least on a thematic level, it works.
Where the movie falls apart is in the laborious runtime and scattershot pacing and plot structure. This movie is over two and a half hours long, and it feels a lot longer. Honestly, you could have cut an hour out of the film by not even having A-Hao as a character. That’s not a knock on Greg Hsu’s performance, he does perfectly fine. I’m just saying that we could have gotten the same moral from, say, another inmate or a guard at A-Ho’s juvie facility and saved a ton of time while still maintaining the conflicting family dynamics and the ultra-obvious “Sun/Son” homophone metaphor. Hell, one of A-Hao’s signature moments is when he tells a fellow student a folk story that cuts to an animated sequence. It looks nice, but it’s never revisited, thematically or artistically, so why bother having it at all? That’s five minutes saved right there.
But what really irritated me were the time skips. There are a couple flashback scenes here and there, which are fine, and one of them is even necessary for the final resolution of the film. What I’m talking about are the forward progressions, which have no consistency whatsoever, and happen with no warning. A-Ho commits his crime, then we’re at the trial some weeks later, then it’s his first day in juvie, then Yu shows up already several months pregnant, then A-Hao visits A-Ho in jail with Yu, then suddenly Yu has the baby, then A-Ho’s released halfway through his sentence. A year and a half passes without basically a single comment on the passage of time, and it’s infuriating. Only once is a time shift acknowledged, with a “Three Years Later” font as we enter the final act. And even after that matters of hours, days, and weeks pass without context, our only clues to the timeline being offhand comments mentioning something we saw as being some degree of time in the past.
It’s maddening, because I’m trying my best to be invested in this family and its story, but every time this happens, it pulls me right out of the proceedings. The film connects these scenes and has them flow as if it’s a simple A-B-C progression, but it’s more like A-G-X with everything in between just left out for no reason. For example, there’s a moment where Wen’s boss at the driving school notices he’s a bit out of sorts, so he tells him to take a month off from work to get his head right. Okay, fine. In the context of the story, this makes perfect sense, including the cynical reason the boss gives for the leave of absence. But in practically the very next scene with Wen, he’s back at work, and nearly a year has passed. So what was the point of even having this moment? We don’t know what he did with the time off, when he went back to work, if he’s made any progress on his issues, nothing. He’s just back at work as if the previous scene had never happened.
If I was to tell a story to a room full of people and say, “So my boss told me at Christmas to take all of January off due to my emotional state. And so now it’s August…” those people would rightfully call bullshit. It’s just bad storytelling, because I’m setting up something with absolutely no payoff and simply moving on to the next tangent. Maybe if I were to then say, “And so now it’s August and he’s suspending me again,” then there’s at least the faintest of connective tissue, but Chung doesn’t do that here. He just jumps to the next non-sequitur plot point without addressing and resolving the previous one. Maybe that’s a trend in Taiwanese cinema, I don’t know. But to me, and I’d wager to most Western audiences, it’s confusing and frustrating beyond measure.
So yeah, this was a disappointment. There are strong performances from the main cast, and a fairly insightful moral idea to go along with some creative technical and artistic elements. But the story structure is appalling, and I just can’t get over it. How can a movie be two and a half hours long and still fail to provide critical information? How can we spend minutes on end watching A-Ho wash a car like he’s a discount Vincent Gallo, but we can’t take the five seconds to insert something like “Five Weeks Later” onto the shot except for one instance? It just makes no sense, and wastes a ton of potential.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What punny name would you give an art film? Seriously, how hard is it to establish a timeline? Let me know!