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Film Review: A Normal Family (2023) by Hur Jin-ho

“We did so many good deeds! We deserve that”.

Stories about moral conundrums and the slippery side of justice and integrity are universally attractive and tent to travel well from one side to the other of the world. It's what happened to Herman Koch's novel “The Dinner”, an international bestseller translated in many languages and adapted into four films, Dutch, Italian, American and finally a Korean version directed by with a different title, “”.

A Normal Family is screening at Udine Far East Film Festival

The film's tone of voice is immediately established when we witness a horrific road rage between two cars, ending in one of the drivers being killed and his 6-yer-old daughter left critically injured. The culprit, a rich and arrogant kid with a powerful father, will likely get away with it, as his case is given to the capable hands of rampant and expensive attorney Jae-wan (Suo Kyung-gu). Coincidentally, the doctor who is taking care of the injured little girl, is none other than Jae-wan's younger brother, the righteous and high-principled Jae-gyu (). The two brothers lead very different lives and have rather different families; the wealthy attorney enjoys life in full with his beautiful and young second wife Ji-su (), a new-born baby and teenage daughter Hye-yoon () from his late first wife. On the other side, the doctor is totally committed to the medical ethic that he's complemented with a lot of volunteering work in developing countries. His wife Yeon-kyung () is supportive and an active social volunteer herself, while their son Si-ho () is an introverted and is experiencing violent bullying at school.

The two brothers and their “best-enemies” wives keep their relationship going (barely!) organising periodical fine-dining meals in expensive restaurants, mainly to discuss practical matters. During one of these dinners, their kids covertly spend the evening together at a boozy party. When the following day a video from a city surveillance camera, catching two unknown youngsters kicking violently a homeless old man becomes viral and a police investigation is in progress, the two families start to suspect the teenage cousins may be involved in this despicable accident. What is the right thing to do? Their parental instinct suggests covering up the crime and shelter the two kids from a highly likely sentence to juvenile prison, but the rational and righteous mind would hope for a just punishment as a moral lesson for the kids.

One of the strongest assets of “A Normal Family” – and a rather satisfying one – is that the characters' peculiarities appear to be set in stone at the opening of the film, and the audience is misled into accepting banally stereotypical figures like the ruthless criminal lawyer, the conscientious doctor, the trophy wife, the caring and sympathetic mother/wife. However, this whole construct shifts along the way and finally crumbles, revealing a different, hidden side of the four parents facing a difficult choice between what their hearts crave and what their mind orders. The story, considering the various successful adaptations, is very well-orchestrated and highly relatable; it is impossible not to think what we would do in a similar situation.

Hur Jin-ho adds some touches to enhance the Korean relatability to a script that is universal enough to risk appearing detached by its local contest. A touch of Christianity and a strong sense of family values are introduced. The righteous doctor is the one that is more observing of the traditional Korean family; his mum lives with them and his wife takes good care of her, while the successful lawyer seems more inclined to different values in life. Moreover, the kids are framed in a typical Korean scenario of cram school and bullying. However, the whole trick of portraying a normal family slowly revealing its abnormality is a bit tainted by the rich upper middle class setting, making it not a “normal family” in the first place.

Shot in crispy cinemascope format, “A Normal Family” shines for the performances of the four main actors and their ability in deceiving us is what makes this film truly enjoyable and special. – one of the best South Korean actors, as widely established – and all the others make their character nuanced and multifaceted. The assured direction doesn't leave anything to the imagination which is a bit of a limitation of the script, but the film leaves lots to ponder over. Hur Jin-ho, who had established his career with romantic movies like “Christmas in August”, and “One Fine Spring Day”, directs a movie that has no traces of romanticism, and, in fact, conveys a rather bleak vision of humanity. We are led to wonder, during the narration, about the “nature-vs-nurture” eternal dilemma and if a violent side may be hidden in all of us. But more than anything, the film challenges us, asking what our personal breaking point is and what would make us abandon our principles.

About the author

Adriana Rosati

On paper I am an Italian living in London, in reality I was born and bread in a popcorn bucket. I've loved cinema since I was a little child and I’ve always had a passion and interest for Asian (especially Japanese) pop culture, food and traditions, but on the cinema side, my big, first love is Hong Kong Cinema. Then - by a sort of osmosis - I have expanded my love and appreciation to the cinematography of other Asian countries. I like action, heroic bloodshed, wu-xia, Shaw Bros (even if it’s not my specialty), Anime, and also more auteur-ish movies. Anything that is good, really, but I am allergic to rom-com (unless it’s a HK rom-com, possibly featuring Andy Lau in his 20s)"

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