Mong-Hong Chung finally got what he deserved: broader recognition. For a while now I've been enjoying Chung's films, but interest in his work has been disappointingly meager. That changed when A Sun [Yang Guang Pu Zhao], his latest feature film, won him prizes for best film and best director at the Golden Horse Awards. I've been eager to catch up with it ever since, the fact that Netflix released it globally made that so much easier. Luckily I wasn't disappointed, though it's probably one of his most commercial efforts to date, which no doubt helps to explain the increased interest.
I became an instant fan of Chung's work after seeing The Fourth Portrait and have been following him closely ever since. Chung has a very clear visual signature (not too surprising, considering his cinematography credits) that strongly resonates with my personal taste, so much in fact that it is hard for me not to love his films. While that signature is still present in A Sun, it has been toned down a little in favor of more explicit drama. That's not an uncommon evolution for a director, though I must admit that I prefer to see things evolve in the opposite direction. For now though, Chung seems to have found a fine balance between style and drama.
Most of Chung's films have a background in crime cinema and A Sun doesn't deviate much from this blueprint. It's a film that explores the impact of a series of small but fateful decisions on the life of a pretty average Chinese family. The difference here is that the crime elements are mostly just drivers for the drama. People expecting the usual crime thrills are going to be disappointed, on the other hand Chung's familiarity with the genre shines through when it matters. The dynamic is a little different compared to his other films, but A Sun is still very much part of Chung's film universe.
A-Ho is a young kid who is bullied in school and feels eclipsed by his older brother. Things take a turn for the worse when he opens up to Radish, one of his few friends. Radish confronts the bully and chops off his hand, which lands the both of them in juvenile prison. In one chaotic moment, the lives of A-Ho's family are shattered and the aftermath will take years to fade away. A-Ho cleans up his act and breaks with his old life, taking on a couple of jobs to pay his dues. But when Radish is released, A-Ho is forced back into his old habits, which jeopardizes the well-being of all the people around him.
With a stronger focus on drama, Chung cuts back on the visual splurges. He did manage to find a nice balance though, because there are still plenty of amazing shots and the cinematography is as lush as ever. The camera work is meticulous, colors are powerful and strong, while the lighting is smooth and comforting. There's also a short animated sequence which looks pretty cool, so it's definitely not just dry and purely functional drama, but people familiar with Chung should expect a more evened out parity between style and substance.
The score is decent but a little inconspicuous. It's appropriate music for this kind of drama and it does support the scenes very well, but you probably won't remember much of it afterwards. Chung seems content with keeping the music in the background, as a purely functional element that supports the mood rather than dictate it. It's pretty much on par with his other films (and Taiwanese cinema in general) and it's a pleasant selection of tracks, but it's hardly used to its full potential.
As for the cast, there are no complaints at all. Chien-Ho Wu is very believable as the disheartened son, Samantha Ko shines as the mother of the family and Greg Han Hsu is perfect as the aspirational brother. But it's Yi-wen Chen who leaves the biggest impression. His character is tough yet emotional and the way Chen alternates between the two with very subtle movements and gestures is absolutely amazing. Secondary parts are all great too, with notable performances of Kuan-Ting Liu and Apple Wu, rounding off the cast very nicely.
The film spans quite a long period of time, which in part explains the length of A Sun. That doesn't mean this is just a classic, long-winded narrative drama though, because the pacing isn't all that even. Certain important moments go by in the blink of an eye, while others linger and stretch into minute-long conversations. This approach won't be for everybody, but it kept me on my toes and it made the film more intruiging than a more conventionally executed drama. It allows room for the characters to grow beyond the expected narrative beats, which pays off in the end.
For people unfamiliar with Chung's oeuvre, A Sun is perfect entry-level film. It showcases his strong points and it has his signature all over it, while not deviating too far from the norm. This is a lush and beautiful-looking film, with powerhouse performances, strong drama and some very poignant scenes. A film that finally brings Chung the broader validation he deserves. For me personally, it's one of Chung's lesser films though, but that's just because I like his other work even better. And for once, availability is not a problem at all, so no reason not to give this one a fair chance.