'A Sun' ('Yang Guang Pu Zhao'): Film Review | Tokyo 2019

Courtesy of Tokyo Film Festival
An engrossing stunner.

In his fifth feature, Taiwanese director Chung Mong-hong finds tenderness and violence in a hard-working family whose two sons grow up facing in opposite directions.

A family scrambling for economic survival falls to pieces when the two teenage sons make devastating life decisions in the moving drama from Taiwan, A Sun (Yang Guang Pu Zhao). Directed and co-written by Chung Mong-hong (Soul, Godspeed), it poses the moral question of whether it’s possible to survive as a wholly good person in a treacherous world. This thought-provoking drama is long but well-paced, full of incident but at the same time intimate — though shocking violence occurs just offscreen. Illuminated by deeply nuanced performances and characters to care about, it positions itself somewhere between the loving but messed-up families of Edward Yang and Ken Loach. It's one of the memorable Asian films this year, well worth the effort of tracking down after bows in Toronto and Tokyo, and could work well in limited release with Asian cinema fans.

Chung, a former director of TV commercials who also handles the lighting of his films under the name Nagao Nakashima, is very much in control of the desolate but poetic mood that makes the film feel so distinctive. For his part, A-wen (Chen Yi-wen), the crabby and inordinately proud father of the family, sets a tone of tension in the kitschy apartment he shares with his hairdresser wife, Chin (the magnetic Samantha Shu-chin Ko), and their sons. However, A-wen only recognizes his sensitive, considerate premed boy A-hao (Xu Guang-han); the punky A-ho (Wu Chien-ho), black sheep of the family, he self-righteously chooses to ignore.

In a dynamic opener set in a busy restaurant, A-ho is the accomplice of a mad dog pal called Radish (Liu Kuan-ting), who chops off a rival’s hand in a restaurant, a scene that sets the action bar high. The time is 1996, a year of presidential elections in Taiwan when tensions with China were particularly high — but this is just background to the domestic story. A-wen, a crabby driving instructor whose graying hair suggests he’s chastised a few too many student drivers in his time, attends his son’s hearing only to urge the judge to lock him up as long as possible. His wife is furious with him, but A-ho just looks defeated. This brief scene speaks volumes about the family dynamics that have left this son out in the emotional cold and probably pushed him into bad company.

The other mark against A-ho is the constant comparisons Dad makes with his brother A-hao, who is undoubtedly the “sun” of the title. He always takes the high road, but his pure heart and sunny reputation deprive him, he tells a girlfriend, of "a dark corner to hide in." It's the first hint that no living being can be all light, all the time. When he goes to visit A-ho in a juvenile detention center that looks very much like a prison, he brings with him a young girl who is carrying A-ho’s baby. Her family has dumped her on their doorstep and their good-hearted mother has taken her in. A-ho doesn’t take the news well.

Out of the blue, in a plot twist no one is expecting, A-hao drops out of the story, and it’s like the center of the family has fallen out; the sunshine has vanished from their lives. A few years pass and A-ho and Radish are released from detention. A-wen remains stonily unforgiving and refuses to even talk to the boy, who now has a wife and child on his hands.

The second half of the film shows how a youth who has been marked as a social liability has very little chance of fulfilling his good intentions. Sober-faced but unbowed, Wu Chien-ho does a fine job making the rebellious A-ho into a human being who matters, tough enough to stand a fighting chance of straightening out his life against overwhelming forces of darkness. On a lonely road one dark and stormy night, a final, heart-rending twist shows he's not as alone as he feared.

The last scenes, which again turn to criminal violence, broach gangster film territory, while they underline how morally messy life is. Even murder may be a necessary part of it. It’s an idea worth pondering, one that Chung reinforces with a light touch when A-ho and his mother go for a stolen bike ride in the dappled shade of their pleasant street. 

Production company: 3 NG Film
Cast: Chen Yi-wen, Samantha Shu-chin Ko, Wu Chien-ho, Liu Kuan-ting
Director: Chung Mong-hong
Screenwriters: Chung Mong-hong, Chang Yaoshen
Producers: Yeh Jufeng, Tseng Shao-chien
Director of photography: Nagao Nakashima
Production designer: Chao Shih-hao
Costume designer: Hsu Li-wen
Editor: Lai Hsiu-hsiung
Music: Lin Sheng-xiang
Venue: Tokyo Film Festival (World Focus)
World sales: MandarinVision Co.

155 minutes