Fantasia International Film Festival 2014 runs July 17 to August 6. Follow all of our coverage here.
A family is involved in a minor fender bender and proceed to snap some pics of the accident, but South Korean soldiers arrive in an attempt to confiscate their cameras. No photos are allowed this close to the border between South and North Korea, but the matriarch of the family stands firm asking the soldier incredulously, “What, do you think we’re spies?”
Of course they are North Korean spies, passing themselves off as an entire family of four, and they’ve been living and working in the South for years. But while they’ve committed murder and other deeds in the name of the Great Leader back home the pressures of being away from their own families as well as being immersed in a more free and open society are beginning to take a toll. When news from the North triggers the team to take an unsanctioned action they find themselves on the wrong side of their vicious handlers and facing the end of not only their mission but also of their lives.
Think of Red Family as a season of “The Americans” condensed into a 100 minutes, and you’ll have an idea of the genre dynamics and subjects at play here. The balance between honoring and respecting their homeland while facing constant exposure to a place that goes against everything they ever knew leads to temptations, behaviors and decisions that Kim Jong-un would most definitely not approve of.
Chief Baek is the group’s “mother” figure to outside eyes, but in the confines of their home she’s a hard taskmaster who holds the team to incredibly high standards. Her “husband” Kim Jae-hong has a wife and child back home hoping to escape the North, their “daughter” Oh Min-ji has family she barely remembers and the clan’s patriarch, Cho Myung-sik, barely remembers a life when he wasn’t killing on command.
Each of them have followed orders and committed heinous crimes, but they’re also growing apart from their past and together as a real, albeit substitute, family. The question becomes where will they draw the line — killing a baby? Killing the family they’ve befriended next door? Killing one of their own?
The core strength of the story and of the film is the family, and all four actors deliver compelling and frequently heartfelt performances as they struggle with their duty and their conscience. The decisions they’re forced to make haunt them and our viewing of them, but redemption is a powerful trait that knows no boundaries, and as the clock ticks down the danger ramps up exponentially for them and their loved ones back in the North. The irony is that while family is not given the respect it deserves by the North’s leaders it remains a terrifying tool used to control their people.
More than simply a suspense piece though, the script (by Kim Ki-duk) imbues the tale with real humanity and intelligence. The family watches in disgust as their neighbors fight over money and waste food while those in the North are starving, but they’re also touched by the family’s ability to move on from strife, to stick together and to be an actual family. They grow closer, and while the two sides feud over dinner when the Southerners disparage the North’s leader, they recognize that even the freedom to argue has its own unfamiliar merits. Something as simple as young Min-ji having the opportunity to blow out the candles on her own birthday cake becomes a sweet yet powerful symbol of all that’s wrong with their glorious leader’s ideology.
The drama that comes from it all is strong, but there are moments where the film’s point — that this fake family has become a real one — is driven home too loudly and too clearly. We get it. They’re a family now. But the film insists on pointing it out again and again. That time could have been better spent with some of the action sequences which feel rushed and occasionally (but temporarily) confusing as we jump in and out of a scene with no prep or follow up.
Red Family has moments of humor and light, but this is a dark, sometimes disturbing and heartbreaking tale of not only what it means to be a family but what it takes to be one too. It’s about the ability to change, to grow, and how the strength needed to do so doesn’t always come solely from within. It’s about “The Koreans,” but it very well could be about all of us.
The Upside: Strong characters; drama, heart and suspense in equal measure
The Downside: Some sequences feel rushed; emotion forced on occasion
On the Side: Red Family is one of four films released last year written by Kim Ki-duk.