3.5.2020

‘A Sun’ should be the golden standard for slow-burn dramas.

A Sun is a family drama that tells a heartwrenching story, the structure of which is comparable to tugging on a loose thread - the seemingly harmless beginning causes an unraveling of unbelievable scale, each stage more dreadful and destructive than the next. A character study at its core, the film explores how the lives of four people in a family with vastly different personalities handle unexpected and distressing change, which begins with the jailing of A-Ho. He leaves behind his brother, mother, father, and other support characters gradually introduced throughout the story.

Before I delve into a closer reading of the film’s core characteristic, which is its unique aesthetic quality, I must first say that almost every aspect of this film is so well executed. The screenwriting has some of the most realist character arcs and natural dialogues, which is seamlessly captured by the actors chosen through obviously thoughtful casting. The complex plot deals with a series of micro and macro scale issues that impact the family, yet the rigid cause-and-effect chain of events explains with clarity how the story arrives at each stage. Most impressively, slow-burn dramas suffer from poor control of the film’s tempo which is maintained delicately by small but gradual buildups and deescalations — think The Irishman. But this film did so perfectly, despite being a bold 2+ hours drama, a great success I would attribute to the film’s editor and phenomenal acting. With that in mind, we turn to the film’s aesthetic quality, which is how this film was so effective in achieving a tear-jerking climax (in fact, multiple climaxes).

After finishing the film, one of the most striking impressions I am left with is that the aesthetic of the film isn’t beautiful, it’s sublime. Despite being often confused with the other, it’s distinguishable in their unique effects on us. It’s what separates the delicacy in Vincent Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” and the vast, boundlessness of Caspar David Friedrich’s “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog.” Most notably, the sublime isn’t necessarily pretty or portray something aesthetically pleasing, it could use something unpleasant to achieve a more intense feeling of fear or sadness. The story of A Sun is well written, but it uses ugly material: crime and violence, alienation from family, suicide, blackmail, and more. In addition, every ugly scene is shot with such charming cinematography, adding a weird layer of juxtaposition where tense moments simultaneously deescalates itself with flattering imagery and calm music. Separately, scenes which are meant to be beautiful, like weddings, reunion, and childbirth are tainted with ugliness, achieving an eerie, bleak tone. This disconnect between context and tone is ultimately the mastery behind A Sun’s visual spectacle.

In fact, even the above description doesn’t do the film justice, as perhaps the English language and culture are what limits our appreciation of the film’s true value. In search of an aesthetic parallel, I came across a term I haven’t used in a long time, which is the Japanese idea of mono no aware, literally translating to “the pathos of things.” It’s used to describe the transient nature of objects, connected to a gentle sadness that comes with the impermanence in life, informing a certain reality. Perhaps difficult to explain in English as these principles are generally culturally and contextually specific, it’s better understood through a series of examples. In fact, those who appreciate anime somehow already subconsciously resonate with this aesthetic as it’s widely used but underappreciated. The Youtube link below is a great montage of things that can be considered mono no aware.

As we can see, a lot of things here are what traditional Western filmmakers would consider “B-roll” footage: stills of nature devoid of human presence, closeups of inanimate objects, distant cityscapes, silhouettes of people in sunlight. But in anime, this “B-roll” is treated differently as each scene still requires the same amount of effort to produce, instead of just sending a second unit to capture shots where the lead isn’t present with live-action films. There is a calm sense of sadness associated with these tense dramatic moments in the above montage.

“B-rolls” in A Sun made to feel a lot more like A-roll.

This argument could even be extended to portray a generally speaking East/West difference in visual storytelling: Western films tend to build tension up to a single, explosive narrative point that is considered the “climax” which is a sizable portion of Act II; Eastern films often feel comfortable omitting the very event it builds up to and instead focuses on the aftermath. This could simply be the water droplets on vegetation after a violent thunderstorm, or the morning sun signaling the start to a new day after the worst night in a character’s life. This different kind of a de-escalation feels somewhat introspective and self-reflective rather than the adrenaline-charged action-packed climaxes of Western films. The coming of dawn, on one hand, symbolizes a new beginning. But at the same time, it sends a message that is quite the opposite of pathetic fallacy which is that life doesn’t care about your ups and downs, it simply moves on with or without you.

With that in mind, I think some of the most impactful moments in A Sun fundamentally use the mono no aware aesthetic principle. It combines a rich, soothing soundscape capturing the backdrop of where the characters stand, with the ugliness of the events that have unfolded. At the emotional peak of the film, I wanted to cry for the characters. But this rush of emotions isn’t the regular hydro pump kind which comes from the sudden death of a main character, blasting you in the face. Instead, it’s like filling a cup with water drop by drop, until at one point, the surface tension ruptures with one too many, and you’re left with a mess to clean up. Undoubtedly, two of the most memorable moments for me are the zoo scenes which informed of the film’s title A Sun, and the ending climax where the father explains his crime to the mother, both of which match this description perfectly.

Zoo date, and ending climax scene with father and mother.

This film is truly a visual masterpiece and one that I will not forget. They say that you should reread books which have changed your life every couple of years because it’s a different book to you at every stage in life. The same goes for films, I think this is going to be one of them for me.


Related Entries