Melodramas tend to be hit or miss with South Korean audiences. Conventionally structured stories are often overlooked (Au Revoir UFO, The Garden of Heaven), but films that approach their topic from an unusual angle, or contain a modern sensibility, can sometimes break out to become successful box office hits (A Moment to Remember, The Way Home).
Before its release, Lee Jung-chul’s debut feature A Family looked like a strong candidate for the former category. Among its cast, the only recognizable star was lead actress Soo Ae, who had up until then only appeared on TV. The story itself also didn’t seem likely to appeal to young viewers - with no romantic angle, it focused on a single father and his troubled relationship with his daughter, who had gotten mixed up in a street gang. Released in early September - a quiet period before the major Chuseok holiday - many expected it to fade into obscurity.
Nonetheless, A Family proved to hold something special for its audience, and became perhaps the only genuine word-of-mouth hit of 2004. Viewers were particularly touched by the assured acting of Soo and veteran actor Joo Hyun. Instead of flashy visuals or a complex narrative, director Lee put the performances of his leads at the center of the film, with all else serving only to complement their words and actions. A bit old-fashioned, some might say... but the result speaks for itself.
For Joo Hyun, best known in supporting roles on films like Saving My Hubby, A Family was a high-profile opportunity to showcase his real talent. Soo Ae, meanwhile, is the film’s major discovery. Often compared to Jeong Yun-hee, a legendary actress from the late 70s, the 25-year old Soo is memorable and convincing as a kid fresh out of jail, struggling to put her life in order. Quickly cast into her second film, Soo is likely to become a familiar sight to fans of Korean cinema.