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Chaotically Dysfunctional: A Normal Family at TIFF 2023

(Photo: TIFF)

Directed by: Hur Jin-Ho

Cast: Sul Kyung-gu, Jang Dong-gun, Kim Hee-ae, Claudia Kim

Selected for this year’ Toronto International Film Festival’s Gala Presentations– Hur Jin-ho’s recent film release, A Normal Family (2023) is anything but about a ‘normal family’. Loosely recapturing Herman Koch’s Dutch novel Het Dinner (The Dinner), Hur Jin-Ho and with the collaboration of a high-profile cast delivers a viscerally dramatic, and suspenseful viewing of what makes for a chaotically dysfunctional family. 

Peering into the lives of two wealthy families, we follow the trajectory of two brothers– Jae-wan (Sul Kyung-gu) and Jae-gyu (Jang Dong-gun) whose familial relationships are catastrophically enmeshed. Accompanying these two materialistically driven families at their luxurious dinner gathering, we immediately challenge how we navigate our own grounding basis for morals. As we are forced to witness the unruly extents, both these families desperately brute-force their way through their attempts at preserving their family names.

Working as an attorney, Jae-Wan establishes himself solidly from the start as a man whose morality, disgustingly enough– is absent. Pairing Jae-Wan’s cunning wit with any un-remorseful and privileged criminal, any low-blow citizen has the luxury to walk away free from conviction. As voyeurs, we watch the extent of Jae-Wan’s work when he defends an unrelenting criminal guilty of manslaughter; after ramming his sports car at full force into a family van in response to an altercation. With jaws wide open, we watch Jae-Wan’s client viscerally alter the trajectory of a young girl’s life, after she is sent straight to an emergency response unit. 

Uncomfortably, we are forced to accept that this is just the start of how cruel life can be. With a twist, this young girl is immediately treated by a famous pediatrician, Jae-gyu– whose integrity is night and day compared to that of his brother, Jae-wan. Praised for his nurturing practice, and strong sense of morality, we grow comfortable in confiding in Jae-gyu’s character, as we observe how his sense of character is grounded on accountability. 

But later, while we join these two families at an occasionally luxurious dinner, their highly-esteemed children get caught up in committing a criminally gut-wrenching act. Ironically, Jae-wan’s daughter– Hye-yoon (Hong Ye-ji) deviously demands her father for legal advice, attempting to evade conviction, and to build herself some means for protection. While Jae-gyu’s son– Si-ho (Kim Jung-chul) cowardly denies his crimeful acts, and resorts to his own delusions of being innocent. Almost like anticipating the crash of two trains whose tracks overlap– we are forced to anxiously watch these two families come together in an attempt to find any solution possible to preserve their twisted honor, as well as protect the name of their children. But amidst the mental clamoring, while the two brothers are fighting over which course of action is the most sound and correct. Both their wives, Yeon-kyung (Kim Hee-ae) and Ji-su (Claudia Kim) are in tension with one another, as they lash at each other in an attempt to assert their own egotistical drives. 

Beautifully, A Normal Family really plays with this concept of monetization and exchange through: nepotism, family honor, transactional relationships– all in the name of self-preservation. Putting all these together make the perfect  recipe for a hell-hole dynamic, as we watch how these social exchanges of loss and gain seep into this ulterior pool made up of morality and ethics. Showing and testing how each protagonist of this twisted narrative, is willing to bend-over-backwards in pursuit of their own ulterior agenda. The impressive performative act of Jae-gyu’s wife– Yeon-kyung willfully goes as far as turning a blind eye to her son, Si-ho’s crimes. Out of a mother’s unconditional form of love, she wraps Si-ho’s harsh reality in a delusional false-sense of security. 

This film really puts you into this hopeless role as voyeur, and almost like eavesdropping on a secret conversation, and watching something you’re not supposed to through a crack in the wall; we explore these multiple layers of this dysfunctional family. Ironically, we also watch as the protagonists themselves play into this role as a voyeur, as we grow more aware of each character’s own malicious intention. But all of this film’s compelling intensity, is not only credited towards the director, but to the highly-esteemed actors whose performances trap you into a roller-coaster of visceral emotions. 

This film also demarcates itself from the typical “eat-the-rich” film, as we watch this privileged and upper-class family deal with a type of universal dread of– “what comes after?” Putting us in a position where we can intimately feel more in touch with the people on screen. Jam-packed into a 2 hour film, A Normal Family asserts a branching notion of anti-capitalist themes brilliantly executed by its highly-esteemed cast. 

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Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Great Review!!!

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