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Red Family
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by Jay Seaver

"That perfect family is always hiding something."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2014 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: There have been many, many films built around the twin premises that the family next door that's too perfect to be true really isn't, and that they have their own problems. "Red Family" doesn't go a completely new direction with it - "The Americans" is a great ongoing series with a bigger canvas to work on than this Korean film, for example - but it hits its marks very nicely indeed, with its fair share of eye-opening moments.

Of the "family" of North Korean spies living in a tony Seoul suburb, only Chief Comrade Seung-hye (Kim Yu-mi) really seems to see this as her patriotic duty - "husband" Jae-hong (Jung Woo), teenage "daughter" Min-ji (Park So-young), and "grandfather" Myoung-sik (Son Byung-ho) all have family back north effectively being used as hostages. That keeps them executing the missions that they are assigned, but it's the next-door neighbors that might pose the biggest threat: Min-ji is starting to like their son Chang-soo (Oh Jae-moo), while his grandmother (Park Myung-shin) is fond of Myoung-sik, and even the constant fighting of Chang-soo's parents (Park Byung-eun & Kang Eun-jin) serves as a keen reminder of what they're missing.

This is a small film from Kim Ki-duk's independent production company (the Korean filmmaker wrote the script but left direction to newcomer Lee Ju-hyoung), so don't expect a lot of the action or elaborate tradecraft that espionage thrillers often feature; most of the film takes place in suburban homes with very little need to clean up afterward. That doesn't mean it lacks for suspense; the last act is a sustained bit of tension in part for how it's buried beneath the surface. More often, the filmmakers will just suddenly drop the bottom out from a scene, playing up how sudden changes are the norm for this group.

Kim's script isn't complicated; in fact, it's kind of theatrical in how the characters will give out information about their situation directly, speaking to the audience as much as each other at times in order to get information about their situations out. There are no flashbacks, and very few moments of impact created out of editing, cross-cutting, or camerawork (although a shot of a reel-to-reel tape recorder running elsewhere during a party is a doozy). For the most part, Lee Ju-hyoung just stands back and shoots the actors, and while it is a little stilted or plain at moments, it lets the cast grow on the audience.

That cast is a pretty good crew. Kim Yu-mi is an early and frequent standout, frighteningly forceful and intimidating, initially seeming to have as much contempt for her "family" as the capitalists around her, although she's equally impressive when Seung-hye is shaken. If she's a marked contrast to Kang Eun-jin as the wasteful, thoughtless mother next door, Jung Woo and Park Byung-eun are somewhat similar as husbands who seem put-upon for different reasons, not quite hen-pecked but feeling powerless. Park So-young is also terrific, able to go head-to-head with Kim Yu-mi when the movie gets to that point, but also making sure that the audience never forgets that she is a teenager who is not nearly as cast in stone as this sort of spy needs to be. Son Byung-ho and Park Myung-shin are each pleasant counters as the family members with the perspective of age.

It's a little rickety at times, and the filmmakers occasionally have a bit of trouble in how the "normal" family occasionally feels a bit false and simplistic compared to how well-sketched their neighbors are. This almost blots out a great moment that serves as the movie's main pivot as it's implied that all families are cobbled together in one form or another. Not quite, though, and there are a number of other little moments that help stitch Red Family into something a little more clever than how it presents itself.

Thinking about it a little more, it's kind of surprising that this very plain-spoken movie comes from the pen of Kim Ki-duk, who more often likes to have his characters say nothing at all. Maybe that's why it feels a little rough at times, but it's still an interesting spy movie and family drama rolled into one film.

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originally posted: 07/22/14 01:10:42
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Ju-hyoung Lee

Written by
  Ki-Duk Kim

  Yu-mi Kim
  Woo Jung
  Byeong-ho Son
  So-young Park

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