Two brothers on divergent paths and the parents who have to struggle to figure out what to do with them.
It was a dark and stormy night when two teenage boys named Radish and A-ho traveled through the city on a motorcycle. They arrived at a restaurant and entered through the back. They made their way to the table where another young man named Oden was eating. Radish then took out a machete and sliced Oden’s right hand off, sending it flying into a bowl of soup. What a way to start a story.
A middle-aged man named A-wen is trying to teach a man to drive. Unfortunately, the man…the man has been being a real dumbass and trying his patience. In any case, A-wen gets a call from his wife, Qin. Apparently, the judge that A-ho’s father was not present at the hearing. She wants him to ask the judge to give A-ho a chance, but A-wen tells her that he would rather A-ho gets locked up and stays locked up until he is old and dying. Still, he agrees to attend the hearing the next day.
And he does attend the hearing with his wife. It is Radish who comes alone. The hearing goes pretty much as expected. A-ho meekly denies that he initially encouraged Radish to attack Oden. He claims that he does not know why Radish cut off Oden’s hand. He claims that he learned that Radish had a machete only when they reached the restaurant. That the idea was only to scare Oden. He hesitates when asked who stole the motorcycle. Radish, who had been glaring at him the entire time from across the table, yells at him to answer the question, and A-ho admits to stealing the motorcycle. A-ho’s lawyer asks the judge to see that he is remorseful and should have a chance to reform and return to society. But A-wen says that he and Qin had failed as parents to discipline him and would not be any better in the future, so it is up to the justice system to do so. Qin is deeply upset that he said that, but he did say that he would say that.
A-wen goes to visit his older son, A-hao, who is about to finish up his semester at cram school. For those who don’t know, in Asia, there are…*sigh*…you can sort of guess what a cram school is. Anyways, A-wen hands him the tuition money, even though the semester is, once again, almost over. He also gives him what looks like a notebook from the driving school. A-hao is a little confused, but whatever.
Qin answers the door to her apartment to find a woman and a teenage girl. The woman asks whether Chen Jian Ho lives there. With unease, Qin lets them in. The woman looks around for a bit and orders the sheepish girl to come to her. The woman does the talking. The girl’s name is Xiao Yu and she is fifteen years old. Jian Ho got her pregnant. She asks again if Jian Ho is around. Qin tells her that Jian Ho…A-ho…is being sent to juvenile detention. The woman scolds Xiao Yu, not just for letting a scumbag knock her up, but also for saying nothing to her about his getting locked up. She turns her anger at Qin. What kind of mother is she? She says that she will see Qin in court, and then leaves with Xiao Yu.
As A-ho starts his first day at juvenile detention, A-hao is having trouble paying attention in cram class in a crammed classroom. To be fair, it is boring as hell, but that is how it is. The literature teacher calls him out for not listening, and A-hao kind of…talks back, which gets him kicked out of class.
A-wen is teaching another driving student who…okay, I am willing to believe that this happened at least once since people can be stupid, but what she does here is just weird. At least no one got hurt. Anyways, I guess to change the subject away from her unbelievably idiotic mistake, she asks A-wen if he is married. When he says that he is, she asks how many children he has. He says one. Ouch. He tells her that his son will be in medical school next year.
Meanwhile, the son that A-wen does not have is sitting in one of the beds in his cell when his four cellmates come in. They introduce themselves to him by provoking him into a fight, which ends when one of them chokes him out.
A man approaches A-wen at the driving school grounds and introduces himself as Oden’s father. He says that the judge ruled civil compensation for 1.5 million, or a bit over 50,000 USD. A-wen, rather rudely, asks how this is relevant to him. Oden’s father said that he went to Radish’s house to find that his grandmother is the only one who lives there, and so Radish’s family will not be able to pay the fine. A-wen is not having this. He tells Oden’s father, Qiu, that he would pay the 1.5 million right now if it were A-ho who cut of Oden’s hand. But, since that is not the case, he says that Qiu should stay away from him.
It is nighttime and everyone is asleep except for A-ho. He walks over to the cellmate who had choked him out earlier in the day and punches him several times. This wakes up the other cellmates, who retaliate. And so A-ho and the other guy, Huang Shi Long, eventually end up in…I guess a lecture hall. A-ho gets warned that he will just lengthen his stay if he gets in trouble. The two are made to agree to stop the fighting and write their statements. And hurry up; it is morning A-ho’s mother is here.
A-ho goes to the…uh…conversation glass thingamee where they talk through the phone. Without even saying hello, Qin asks A-ho what happened to his face. He says that he bumped into a window, which Qin does not believe for a second. She asks him whether he has any enemies or owes anyone money; whether there is anything else he is not telling her. Qin tells him that she does not want any more surprises knocking at her door. Ironically, not only does she not mention Xiao Yu by name when saying this, she does not mention the pregnancy either. A-ho tells her that everything is fine, which she also does not accept. After a long pause, she asks him if he needs anything, So he asks for some food allowed by the center.
The visit is over, so A-ho goes to class. Shi Long trips him, already threatening to break the truce. The teacher puts a stop to that, and A-ho makes his way to his desk.
A-hao is eating lunch with…well it doesn’t really matter. A girl comes and sits down across from him. She notes that he is not eating much and he responds by…looking at her with a puzzled expression. She asks him if he is still mad at the teacher for throwing him out of the class. Again, no response. Finally she says hello and gives her name: Guo Xiao Zhen. And end scene.
Lunch time at the detention center. The five eat in their cells. A-ho eats by himself while the others eat together. Still, there is no fighting, so that is progress. He walks over to them with the food that Qin bought for him, telling them that he cannot finish it by himself. One of the cellmates pushes the food away. Shi Long tells A-ho to eat as much as he can and to not sleep that night else Shi Long will punch him until he pukes. Olive branch rejected.
Well, it is night time. A-ho and Shi Long are staring at each other from across the bunk beds…well, trying to; it looks like Shi Long has fallen asleep while sitting, but forces himself back awake. He starts multiplying numbers to keep himself from falling asleep, but somehow gets stuck on 6×6. A-ho has to tell him the answer. So Shi Long tries to continue, but immediately messes up. Is it because he is too sleepy or because he really really does not know his multiplication tables? A-ho helps him out again, even making it applicable to Shi Long’s life by making it about selling drugs and a violent attack.
School is out and Xiao Zhen is walking to the bus stop. A-hao catches up to her and asks to tag along, saying that he can get home later. She agrees. As they get to the stop he introduces himself as Chen Jian Hao. Apparently, he did not introduce himself at lunch. It does not matter either way, since she already knew. It turns out that he is famous at the cram school; the teachers speak highly of him. Even the literature teacher who threw him out of class?
In any case, she tells him that the last time that they were together, he did not answer a question that she asked. He replies that she asked a lot of questions and he did not know what to say. He also did not know her. He then asks why he does not recognize her from class. Really? That classroom was overflowing with students. She tells him that she enrolled only last month; she had already retaken the exam twice and was about to give up. But here she is.
A-hao tells her that the literature teacher mentioning Chinese historian-scholar Sima Guang reminded him of the story of a young Sima Guang breaking a water tank. Xiao Zhen sort of remembers it being about him saving a child who was drowning inside the tank. A-hao says that, in the real story, young Sima Guang was playing hide-and-seek with a bunch of other kids and Sima Guang was It. He found all of his friends, but said that one was still missing. None of the other kids knew whom he was talking about, but they searched along with him until they got to a large water tank by a tree. Everyone figured that whoever Sima Guang was talking about must be in there.
The bus arrives, but Xiao Zhen decides to stay to hear the rest of the story.
Everyone else was yelling, but Sima Guang calmly picked up a rock and threw it at the water tank. There was no water inside. There was just a child: Sima Guang himself. Man, I know that Sima Guang’s approach to history was not quite like that of the West, but that does not sound like a real story.
A-hao apologizes to Xiao Zhen for telling such a lousy story and making her miss her bus.
Aaaanyways…Qin arrives at her apartment complex to see Xiao Yu waiting for A-ho outside. Xiao Yu does not answer when Qin asks if her mother knows that she is here, but Qin lets her in anyways. A-wen is eating dinner inside. Qin introduces her to A-wen, but he wordlessly glares at them. Qin leads Xiao Yu to another room so that she can speak with A-wen alone.
Qin tries to explain who Xiao Yu is, but A-wen is unhappy. Why is she looking for A-ho here? Does she not know what Qin’s son did? Qin cannot believe that A-wen is acting like A-ho is not his son as well. A-wen brushes that aside and mentions Oden’s father pestering him at work. Once again referring to A-ho as Qin’s son, he yells that they still have to clean up for him even when he is locked up. He demands that Qin call Xiao Yu’s mother and have her sent home. Xiao Yu, who has obviously heard the shouting, tries to leave the apartment. Qin chases after her and prevents her from leaving. It is right then that A-hao returns, with no idea of who this girl is, why she is crying, or why his mother is hugging her.
Qin meets with Xiao Yu’s mother the next day. Apparently, Xiao Yu’s mother had talked to her about possibly having an abortion. Xiao Yu wanted to keep it, but could not say who would take care of it. It turns out that the woman is not her birth mother. Xiao Yu’s parents died in a tour bus fire ten years ago and she had to go live with her unmarried aunt. Xiao Yu was a lovely child, but became quite a handful as she got older. Qin offers to keep Xiao Yu by her side until she gives birth, saying that it would be best for everyone.
So, Xiao Yu tags along with Qin at her work as a stylist at a…well, I am actually not sure what the establishment is, but it looks like a place that Xiao Yu is too young to attend.
Meanwhile, A-wen is about to go driving with a student when Qiu runs up and gets in the backseat. After staring at Qiu, A-wen tells the student to start the car. And the student goes off…rather quickly. He says that he has been driving since he was thirteen, but just had the time to take the test. Oh dear, he is driving like a maniac.
During one of the calmer parts of the drive, Qiu asks A-wen whether he has reconsidered the issue of the 1.5 million. A-wen says that he will not pay a cent. Qiu asks for pity, but A-wen asks him why he didn’t look after his son properly. After all, Oden was messing around so much that what happened should come as no surprise. That’s a bit of a stretch, but Qiu asks the driving student to judge, which irritates A-wen even further. He tells the student to park the car and orders Qiu out. Oden threatens to go to A-wen’s boss. A-wen retorts that he is a good citizen who is protected by the law; this issue of the money is between Qiu and Radish’s family. He then has the student start the car again, stranding Qiu up on that hill in the middle wherever.
A-hao comes home to see his mother smoking over a whistling teapot. He goes over to turn off the stove. He asks her what’s wrong and what follows is a gentler version of the exchange that she had with A-ho during the visit. She tells him that Xiao Yu has a prenatal visit tomorrow, but she is too busy to go with her and her aunt is not in the city. Qin asked A-wen to go with her in the hopes that they would maybe get to know each other better, but he just got angry. A-hao offers to go with Xiao Yu. He will just skip first period of cram school.
A-hao goes to talk with Xiao Yu, who is practicing braiding on what I guess is a mannequin head from Qin’s workplace. He offers to accompany her on her prenatal visit and she accepts. He also offers to take her to visit A-ho, secretly. She asks if that is possible and he says that she can.
Well, it turns out that he was wrong. They travel all the way to the detention center only for the guard to forbid Xiao Yu from entering. A-hao apologizes to Xiao Yu and is ready to leave, but she says that it is okay if he goes in while she waits outside.
A-ho asks A-hao what he is doing at the detention center. A-hao tells him that he was taking Xiao Yu to her prenatal visit and A-ho stops him right there. Prenatal visit? A-hao is surprised that Qin did not say anything during her numerous visits, especially since Xiao Yu is due in two or three months. A-ho is really upset. The supervisor has to tell him to control his emotions lest she terminate the visit. A-ho complains that their mother made an effort to keep that from him, but A-hao counters that the family knew nothing about Xiao Yu at all until she arrived at the apartment with her aunt. He says that their mother must have kept silent to keep A-ho from worrying. He suspects that A-ho was trying to avoid his problems, or that he does not care. This provokes A-ho once again. Why did A-hao drag Xiao Yu all the way here when she could not even come in? And why is he the one giving A-ho this news? What does anyone expect A-ho to be able to do with any of this? He cannot go anywhere. He cannot do anything. And with that, the visit is terminated.
This is a pretty heavy movie, for the most part. That said it can have a pretty silly sense of humor. There is a bit of a mean joke having the guy who has his hand fall into a bowl of soup be named Oden. When A-hao talks back to the teacher, the teacher openly admits to not believing the teachings of the person whom he is talking about. Then there are the driving students. Oh my goodness. But, let’s be honest. This is a drama. And a pretty sad one. Not really a tearjerker, more of a slow trudge.
This story is about a family that, having been living a fragile existence for a while, have to deal with the fallout of that existence finally breaking. They pick up the pieces and try to fit them back together as best they can, but it does not quite work that way. And so, they have to suffer through the consequences and adapt.
The motto of A-wen’s driving school is Seize the day; decide your own path. It is shown several times in the movie, almost like a mocking statement. Almost no one here is able to choose a path. Everyone has expectations to fill. The only ones who try to step out of line end up messing up and getting punished. A-ho had had problems for years and his parents were unable to really put in the work to get him help. So he flailed around, descending into a world of violence and, let’s say toxic masculinity.
With the younger son languishing even before the act that leads into his incarceration, the parents pin their hopes, if not their attentions, on the older son. A-hao may not be the titular sun of A Sun, but he is the son with the sun on him at all times. A gentle, considerate, intelligent, thoughtful soul with a future in medicine, A-hao is the future. Yet, it is not a simple case of two brothers who are each other’s opposites. A-hao seems to possess a side to himself that he cannot reveal to anyone and does not even have the opportunity to understand for himself. Everything seems to be coming up roses for him, yet there is something within him; a darkness that is forever obscured by the incessant light. Meanwhile, A-ho may have some…potential, that has been going to waste due to the path that he took.
What of the parents? Since we never see them before the violent event, it is difficult to say what they were like before it. Still, it does seem like they have different parenting styles, at least when it comes to A-ho. Qin, to her credit, continues to try with A-ho, regardless of how angry and frustrated she is at him. But is that a problem? Has she been enabling his behavior by trying to mitigate the damage? Meanwhile, A-wen has just given up. Judging the raising of A-ho to be a failed experiment, he would rather the state take responsibility for disciplining the boy and wash his hands of the whole thing. When he tells his student that he has only one son, he is not just lying to her, but also to himself. He prefers to pretend that A-ho does not exist, or at least has nothing to do with him. Any reminder to the contrary sets him off. How dare people imply that a good citizen such as himself has any connection to this hoodlum? As for A-hao? The two of them I guess act fairly the same. Polite, but keeping things from him. Not warm, but about what one could expect from Asian parents just trying to get by. They take it for granted that he is fine, not even considering asking him if something is wrong.
A-hao seems to have picked up his mother’s traits. They are both introspectively quiet as opposed to menacingly silent, trying to solve problems and help people while keeping their secrets to themselves. Meanwhile, it seems like A-ho had inherited A-wen’s short temper. Perhaps A-wen’s attempt to mentally erase A-ho’s existence is due to his fear of acknowledging that he could have just as easily descended down that path as well, and his assertion that he is a good citizen is protesting too much.
The motto of A-wen’s driving school is Seize the day; decide your own path. The implication is that driving helps you determine your own fate. How does that work in the movie? A-ho steals a motorcycle in hopes of seizing the day. What does that get him? We find out later that he had found solace in riding bicycles with his mother, probably something that indirectly led him towards that motorcycle theft. He is brought to trial in a van. A-wen seems fated to ride around the city with maniacs and morons day in and day out. Xiao Zhun CHOOSES to not get on the bus and stay with A-hao instead. Does that change anything? Maybe not. In any case, it seems that vehicles are more likely to drive people to their fates than allow people to determine their own.
This movie is 156 minutes long. It is not the longest film that I have talked about in this series and even the next two movies after this one will be even longer. But one can really feel the runtime with this one. On the one hand, the first 98 minutes or so seems like a movie in itself and the next 58 is something else. On the other hand, perhaps the movie could have been tightened up for faster pacing. One could make the case for either, but I don’t feel like either would really work. While I am not particularly fond of the slow films that go on way past two hours, I feel like the pace of this film adds to the weight of it. It is not about the action or the movement, but of the slow process, the stressful indecision, the painful recalibration. The pacing helps to make the sudden shifts even more jarring. And then it is back to the recalibration once again, now with this other thing to deal with.
This film requires some patience, but it is really good…yeah.
WTF ASIA 129: Musa (South Korea: 2019, approx. 159 minutes)
WTF ASIA 130: Lagaan (India: 2000, approx. 223 minutes)