Credit: Courtesy of TIFF
by Joshua Polanski Featured Film

A Normal Family — Hur Jin-ho [TIFF ’23 Review]

September 15, 2023

In a movie titled A Normal Family, one thing can be certain: the family is obligated to abnormality. Hur Jin-ho’s newest film, an adaptation of the Dutch novel The Dinner by Herman Koch, attests to this. The source material’s title explains why the film’s early marketing so heavily depends on the monthly family dinners between two brothers and their wives — though many of the film’s most memorable images have nothing to do with their dinner routines. These adult-only dinners — once a month at ridiculously expensive restaurants—come to reveal a disturbing ethical dilemma at the film’s center, one that their multi-household family must gamble their future unity on.

Screenwriters Park Eun-kyo and Park Joon-seok’s adaptation of Koch’s story leaves plenty of seeds to suggest that the Yang family is not and never has been a normal family. The aging matriarch struggling with dementia almost flippantly comments to one of the wives to be weary of her son’s violent streaks, a trait heretofore unwitnessed. The son of respected physician Jae-gyu (Jang Dong-gun) and the willingly gullible Yeon-kyung (Kim Hee-ae), Si-ho (Kim Jung-chul) squishes a beetle with glee and lacks in the friend department. Even earlier, in one of the film’s early scenes, Jae-gyu’s criminal defense attorney brother, Jae-wan (Sol Kyung-gu), has no problem imagining complex stories for his clients to use to excuse their crimes. Something doesn’t just feel off with this family; something is off.

The professionally conniving Jae-wan and his younger and weight-obsessed wife Ji-soo (Claudia Kim) parent two children together. The elder daughter, Hye-yoon (Hong Ye-ji), of Jae-wan’s first wife, proves to be quite the problem; the baby boy that Ji-soo favors, by contrast, is little more than an ornament to the production design. When the conflict emerges, both the script and Jae-wan relegate Ji-soo to a backseat role; Yeon-kyung, meanwhile, assumes a more active role than her much younger sister-in-law. She even acts with such an independent agency that she takes a stance in opposition to that of her husband on the moral quandary.

The instigating incident begins after Si-ho walks in on his cousin making out with some strange nameless boy at a high school party. This clearly frustrates him — and as the cousins leave the party, they find trouble together. (Nothing more will be said here, but what happens won’t be a spoiler for anyone familiar with the source material.) Beyond this single episode, and perhaps also Hye-yoon’s power role as a tutor to Si-ho, the screenplay never really hints at any more profound cousin-Oedipus complex — yet, the incident rather clearly seems related to Si-ho’s instinctual emotional reaction to walking-in on his cousin with another boy. Even though the incident involves the two children, they are more or less perfunctory vessels for psychological drama and empty symbols for the dilemma the parents must come to reckon.  

As expected from seasoned writer-director Hur Jin-ho (Christmas in August; The Last Princess), A Normal Family is a pretty film with occasionally impressive cinematography. Hur composes the first meeting at the dinner table with a series of tone-setting, straight-on eye-level shots: discordance, like the uncomfortably close camera, is the norm at this communal place. The wives occasionally embody gendered stereotypes, especially in their relationship with each other. Their age difference and social comfortability, combined with Ji-soo’s distanced status within the family as an outsider (following in the footsteps of Jae-wan’s first wife), result in incessant bickering. They simply can’t bear one another and just play the social game for the sake of their husbands. Even the third major female character, Hye-yoon, receives less care and screen time than her male cousin. The men are at the crux of this picture. 

But at least the two male leads give damn good performances for two hours. Sol, as always, captivates. He’s one of the best actors working in South Korea, and here delivers one of his best performances in years. When the two brothers eventually flop positions on the quandary, Sol sells the switch more than Jang, who admittedly has the more difficult transition as Jae-gyu; the latter’s perspective change has only a single precursor. In the most startling image in the entire film, Jae-gyu — who saves lives at work — takes the life of a small deer as it hits his car, shattering his windshield. He chooses not to alert any authorities or to go to the emergency room, and instead drags the bloody animal carcass to the side of the road, leaving a thick trail of red. The bird’s eye view lends the shot a certain unsettling quality: Why does it feel like he’s hiding the animal? Has he done this before? From what (or whom) does he hide? 

It’s a powerful image, not unlike the memorable blood paths in the 2022 Turkish film Burning Days (an underseen film this writer caught after its Cannes premiere last year). And like that film, the attractive cinematography here is almost (but not quite) enough to forgive the contrived development that the final act hangs its worth on. As it stands, A Normal Family ends up just a good half-hour shy of nailing the thrilling conclusion to what could have been one of the great 21st-century South Korean crime dramas.

Published as part of TIFF 2023 — Dispatch 3.