Red Family (Bulgin Gajok): Tokyo Review

The South Korean maverick cineaste surprises – not in a good way – by overseeing a plodding melodrama about the redemptive nature of bourgeois family values.

Kim Ki-duk produces, pens and edits first-time feature director Lee Ju-hyoung's outing about four North Korean spies living undercover in Seoul as a family.

As its executive producer, sole screenwriter and co-editor, Kim Ki-duk has had his name writ large all over Red Family's credits – but more of a surprise is how the South Korean auteur's presence is barely felt. In fact, the film – the first feature-length from the French-educated Lee Ju-hyoung – actually runs against Kim's aesthetic and ideological stances in nearly every way. With lines and plot points resembling those of soap operas and a narrative validating the redemptive nature of mundane middle-class family values, Red Family presents the polar opposite of what Kim has made an international name of himself with – provocative films such as his most recent gritty and incest-infested outings Pieta and Moebius.

One could only wonder the creative leeway the 36-year-old novice helmer has had at his disposal, for Red Family has taken an interesting premise. It's a rumination of the nature of domestic relationships through the mirroring of a "fake" one comprising unrelated North Korean spies and a real South Korean relationship drenched in bourgeois behavior – and produced a staggeringly conventional piece, offering scant original ideas but a lot of caricatured characters, mise en scene and plot development, complete with teary confessional speeches about conscience and cancer.

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Neither is glossy enough to position itself as a mainstream vehicle (as the recent pop-idol-heavy but surprisingly engaging Secretly Greatly is) nor gritty and contemplative enough to stake a claim as an arthouse entity. Red Family's future is hardly rose-hued beyond its premiere as a competition entrant at the Tokyo International Film Festival, where it made its bow on Oct. 23.

Set in suburban Seoul in the present day, Red Family revolves around a clan whose ordinary veneer – the jaded homemaker Seung-hae (Kim Yumi), the bumbling husband Jae-hong (Jung Woo), the shuffling granddad Myung-sik (Son Byeong-ho) and the growling teenager Min-ji (Park So-young) – conceals a unit of four elite North Korean undercover operatives planted into South Korean society with their mission being to take out defectors upon the orders conveyed through a more senior agent ("Jackrabbit") who, in his everyday persona, runs a repair workshop and engages in a crude relationship with a local woman in the neighborhood.

In what could be seen as a sign of cultural détente, Red Family offers a representation of the erstwhile deadly quartet as human beings. Eschewing many past depictions of these agents as horrifying killing machines, Lee's film (and Kim's script) plays them as characters whose warped (and not exactly entirely unwavering) political beliefs in their country run parallel with their some very human instincts. Such a conflict defines their existence, as their performance on enemy soil would bring about ramifications to their family who are still living in the North; their anxieties add to the listlessness they feel in between assignments, as they become confused about the public and private personas they are to play while also finding themselves slowly consolidating their positions in the society they are sent over to destroy.

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Their slide towards compromises with mainstream South Korean values - complete with a spacious house and seemingly affluent lifestyle – becomes ever more slippery as their bonds with the family next door grow. And it's here that Red Family also spirals into problematic territory: it's all very well that the South Korean family is first shaped to mirror that of the spies' next door – the troubled parents are regularly brought to their knees (literally, in this case) by their more outspoken and scarily principled teenage offspring, as the granny looks on with a mix of authority and care – so as to highlight the universal nature of familial tensions, but the agents' fondness for their neighbors' melodramatic behavior is unnerving.

And as the film proceeds, its foundations become increasingly shaky as one easily doubts the agents' professionalism: they risk arousing suspicions by getting into a debate with the neighbors by offering strident defense of North Korea, its young leader Kim Jong-un, the country's social conditions and plans of developing nuclear weaponry; meanwhile, they also begin to openly question their work and Pyongyang in general, knowing perfectly well (as they themselves discussed) that they are forever under the surveillance of "the Shadows," a group sent into the South to monitor them.

And just as the clan begin to lose the plot, so does Red Family – the alarm bells indeed starts to ring very early in the film, as Seung-ae is seen getting drunk, spewing nonsense and questioning the bonds between her and her fake kin in the clichéd tenor resembling those of the still very popular matinee family-based soap operas.

And as if to highlight this easy compromise for visual gags and plot advancement, Seung-ae's proclaimed experience and standing as the unit leader is thrown out of the window when she goes off the script with one misguided deed to try and save Jae-hong's wife from the firing squad after a botched attempt to flee North Korea. And as illogic spawns illogic, their one last task which would allow them to redeem themselves is not to pull off one last spectacle of an attack, but to kill their neighbors because of their bad influence on the agents. Rather than plotting a great escape, the top spies fumble their way into thinking how to confront this conundrum. And a fumbling finale certainly comes into play with the characters – Seung-hae's unit and their pursuing Shadows – falling into the precipices of sentimentalism as out of place as these North Koreans are in Seoul.

Indeed, this geographical and psychological dislocation and the inner fight against the temptation of conformity could have provided the filmmakers with enough ammunition for an assault on the weakness of human nature. Instead, the film opted to plunder the arsenal of mainstream televisual discourse instead, plucking out slapstick routines and lame gags and reproducing them without a modicum of irony involved. Like its leading characters, Red Family is basically confused and stranded between two poles -- and it's not a cuddly sight.

Competition, Tokyo International Film Festival
Production Company: Kim Ki-duk Film
Director: Lee Ju-hyoung
Cast: Kim Yumi, Son Byeong-ho, Jung Woo, Park So-young
Producer: Kim Dong-hoo
Executive Producer: Kim Ki-duk
Director of Photography: Lee Chun-hee
Production Designer: Jung Hye-won
Editors: Kim Ki-duk, Kim Heuk
Music: Choi In-young
International Sales: Finecut
In Korean
99 minutes