“We are to the gods what flies are to a capricious boy: they kill us for fun” (King Lear – William Shakespeare)
And in the terrestrial universe subjugated by the underworld, where the gods are men hidden behind a mobile phone, heads of “rings” who order, judge, manipulate the lives of others, even an anonymous professor like Dong-ha can find himself in the role of fly between the hands of a capricious boy. As we will underline in this ours A Model Family reviewthe ten-episode television series available on Netflix, starts from the concept of family, to branch out along two connected and divergent branches. On the one hand there is the criminal family, the one you choose to belong to and in the name of which you lose your human nature to embrace a monstrous, animal, evil and mourning nature. On the other hand there is the family that you create, the one to be protected, the fragile one, of children who ask without understanding, and wives who observe and act, becoming accomplices and enemies, guardians and protectors of a nucleus ready to face a storm lurking.
South Korea once again becomes a scrutinizer of anonymous existences, victims of a precarious existence, and ready for all to go up and breathe, even at the cost of embracing the world of the underworld. Because in A Model Family there are no competitors left to perish in a game of death (Squid Game), and not even members of a family risen to parasites in a social climb without victory (Parasite), but a man so ordinary as to appear tragic, laughingstock of fate found himself playing the role of a player in a fight for survival, an involuntary pawn thrown into a vortex of death and blackmail, orders and shots. All for the duration of 10, adrenaline-fueled episodes where the family, both the criminal and the traditional one, are everything, except model families.
A MODEL FAMILY: THE PLOT
Dong-Ha (Jung Woo) has nothing special about it. He is an ordinary breadwinner, with a mediocre career and a modest life. Married for more than ten years to Eun-Joo (Yoon Jin-Seo), the two spend their days barely talking, surviving a marriage that has now ended pending a divorce. Eun-Joo herself seems to be hiding a secret that no one knows, or perhaps it seems so. After having squandered the sum destined for the operation to the heart of his younger son, the man is in the midst of a financial crisis that will only exacerbate the already precarious domestic balance. But the case is mocking, and so one day Dong-Ha runs into an abandoned vehicle with a lot of money in it. He seems like a godsend, too bad that in addition to the money in the cockpit there are the bodies of two men. A fortuitous, unexpected fate, which could revive his life, but which instead will lead the man into the underworld of the drug dealer and the underworld. From the moment he opens the door of that car, Dong-Ha will have to deal with his involvement with Gwang-Cheol (Park Hee-Soon), drug number two. And so that anonymous life will never be the same again.
THE TRAGEDY OF A RIDICULOUS MAN
In 1981 Bernardo Bertolucci had already told how the precarious resolve of an entrepreneur from the Lower Po Valley melted like snow in the sun due to the criminal power in The Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man. The kidnapping of the son is a fuse that takes and lights everything, leaving behind scams, agreements with usurers and marital crises. The mirror of an Italy in search of its own identity in the 1980s between fears and violence, today finds its reflection in a media universe like the South Korean one, where the existence of the last, the unheard, the shadows of men and women walking silently and with their heads down the path of life, they are caught and thrown into the center of events greater than themselves. The television and cinema screen thus becomes the mirror of a social denunciation attentive to social discrimination, to the flaws of the mind, to the consequences of a father who in the name of his family agrees to become a drug courier. Like the father played by Ugo Tognazzi in Bertolucci’s opera, Jung Woo’s Dong-ha is reduced to an anti-hero bordering on ridicule. Father of a heart-sick child, and husband of a woman tired and ready for divorce, the man agrees to come to terms with his most amoral part, to get dirty with a blood that smells of death and blackmail, allowing himself to be blinded from the dream of wealth promised by the God-money for the good of one’s family. But it is precisely in the name of that household to be protected, that the man finds himself against his will to become a member of another family, that of men ready to betray themselves for the control of others, of gangsters who bite, control, send messages and light fires or hide bodies.
A SMALL LITTLE BORGHESE FATHER
He is a father trying to save his family; to hide his children and his wife under the cloak of invisibility and lies, Dong-Ha. Yet every gesture of him, every word of him is for him and for his family a step forward towards the abyss. And so, in a male-centered universe, where bosses shoot, decide, blackmail, talk, while the fathers just remain petrified, undecided on what to do, it is women who take the lead. Command of the actions of others, command of investigations, command of a broken family. A female claim carried out in silence, quietly, through the weight of concrete actions that clash with those of male thoughts held in suspense, evolving without ever being realized, if not in the form of violence. To communicate the unpredictability of events, and the fall of a man under the weight of uncontrolled actions and beyond one’s reach, it was necessary to leave everything in the hands of an anonymous, ordinary character, so naive as to be weak and foolish. Jung Woo does a painstaking job, sewing on himself a man with constantly wide eyes, ready to start looking for an answer, or an explanation, for what destiny has reserved for him. His face is a mask of incomprehension; his body is a wooden puppet that moves by inertia, where every gesture is performed by groping. His path along the tunnel of the underworld is a walk marked by falls, by ears that listen and minds that do not reason. His final acceptance of being part of that world, at the cost of saving every member of his family, is a pact also signed by the change of clothes: white shirts, a symbol of purity, will leave room for the black of t-shirts and jackets elevated to omens of death and impending fear. All in the hope of being able to wear, again, that anonymous uniform of a university professor, fragile, naive, anonymous.
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NARRATIVE LANES ON IMMERSIVE HIGHWAYS
Structured over ten episodes, director Kim Jin-woo launches his series as a car along a three-branch highway. The main narrative line is carefully and harmoniously flanked by two subordinate lanes, letting the police subplot naturally oppose, until it intersects, with that of the South Korean underworld. For eight episodes, the traffic of information, details to be discovered and quite surprising plot-twists, flow smoothly, intriguing the viewer to the point of holding him by the hand, along this breathtaking race. Yet, something creaks one step away from the epilogue. The names of the members of the criminal ring are flashes that confuse the viewer; too many characters on the pitch, too little time to channel and assimilate everything. This accumulation of names, of men and women who attack each other, call each other and swear revenge, ends up being a circle of existences that mislead the attention of the public. Beyond the carriageway, the viewer searches for the main road, without however the possibility of traveling along the center, but always at the border. That’s enough to leave satisfied with the final scenes, but only slightly enough and not totally satisfying as it could have happened until recently. For his part, Kim Jin-woo orchestrates each episode with punctual skill. Between tracking shots, total, and wide angles used in an exemplary and timely manner, the director creates an immersive atmosphere, bordering on videogame involvement. By making the viewer an active part of the television game, the director fills the gaps and obstructions that characterize the narrative structure, letting his eyes fill with attraction and surprise.
GAME OF OPPOSITIONS
Taking up a visual and chromatic structure fully tested by Bong Joon ho, Park Chan-Wook (and with a touch of Takeshi Kitano), Kim Jin-woo develops each episode on continuous contrasts, alternating the darkness of the soul through a cold and ashy, with shining moments of human warmth released by warm and fiery red tones. Similarly, close-ups of the professor, a contemporary Don Quixote, alone, against everything and everyone, alternate with wider shots, ready to capture and reunite members of a criminal family ready to betray itself in the same shot. The spectacle of death is taken and shown in all its violence, without sweetening, and without ever verging on the border with the splatter. A fatal painting painted with the red of blood and the black of the most blinding fear: this is A model family, a sequencing of the fall of the hero who is not a hero, getting lost in the maze of a crime juggled on broken promises, revenge ready to be fulfilled, corrupt cops and thugs with a shred of humanity.
That of A model family will not be a model family, but it is certainly an essay on the loss of one’s own interiority, of an integrity stained with ambition and the pursuit of a near-touch but never truly grasped happiness. A universe where crime becomes a small-scale and metaphorical representation of one’s fears, losses and shortcomings. Fears, gaps and losses like those of an absent father, who tries to recover a modicum of happiness, ending up leaving his family in the middle of the storm without an umbrella.
We conclude this review of the A Model Family series by underlining how Korea is increasingly confirming itself as one of the most interesting producers of cine-serial works of the moment. Although it sins of over-information at the narrative level in the last two episodes, to support the weight of a successful series is above all the visual and directorial sector.
Because we like it
- Directed by Kim Jin-woo.
- The soundtrack, penetrating and disturbing.
- The role of women.
- The overpopulation of somewhat superficial characters in the last two episodes.
- Gaps at the narrative level.