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'A Normal Family’ - a twisted family drama unveiled at the Korean Film Festival's Opening Gala

by Nilza Anibal & Marianna Szucs

On the rainy evening of 2 November, the British Film Institute (BFI) served as the venue to host the much-anticipated opening gala of the 18th London Korean Film Festival (LKFF). The highlight of the evening was undoubtedly the screening of 'A Normal Family' directed by seasoned director Hur Jin-ho.

Our team (Nilza, Shai and Marianna from the Hallyu Con team) was invited by film curator Eunji Lee - who’s heading the London Korean Film Festival - and was able to experience a very special Thursday evening.

The film, of around 116 minutes, introduced us to the complex world of Jae-wan (played by actor Sul Kyung-gu), a successful lawyer, and his younger brother Jae-gyu (played by actor Jang Dong-gun), a successful doctor. The plot takes a riveting turn as Jae-wan finds himself entangled in a morally challenging case he’s taken - of a rich executive’s son, who has purposely run over and killed a man and left his daughter seriously injured - juxtaposed against his brother's struggle to keep said daughter alive after the tragic incident.

Hur Jin-ho's storytelling prowess shines as he deftly weaves the family portrait of the two brothers, exploring the intricate dynamics between siblings, spouses and the younger generation. The narrative unfolds as a twisted melodrama, presenting moral conundrums that test the characters' relationships and their ever changing approach to ethics.

Sul Kyung-gu and Jang Dong-gun, along with the other main cast, Kim Hee-ae (who played charity worker and Jae-gyu’s wife, Yeon-kyung) and Claudia Kim (who played Jae-wan’s young second wife, Ji-su) delivered nuanced performances that elevated the storyline. The additional tension, generated by the children of the two brothers, gradually building into a shocking climax by the end ultimately made us contemplate on moral values.

The interfraternal and intergenerational disagreements were portrayed with such authenticity that the dilemmas faced by the characters became as confronting to us (the audience) as they were to those on the big screen.

Post-screening, attendees were treated to an engaging Q&A session and follow-up informal gathering with director Hur Jin-ho and a few special guests.

During the Q&A, when asked about how he guided the actors into their roles, he provided insightful glimpses into the characters' complexities. For instance, he shared his instructions to Jang Dong-gun, stating,

"Your character is a good person, a doctor who does well for the community, but he also has ‘something’ (else) inside (this persona)."

On the other hand, Claudia Kim, who plays the younger brother's new wife, was guided to be the "normal voice" - less educated but more emotionally grounded. Hur Jin-ho's deliberate choice to focus on the normal aspects of life, rather than delving into a simplistic portrayal of good versus evil, resonated throughout the film.

An audience member probed into the film's exploration of violence in the Korean education system, to which the director provided a thoughtful response. Hur Jin-ho highlighted the intense pressure on Korean students to succeed academically from very early on in their lives, shedding light on the stress it inflicts on families. Through the characters, especially the teens, he aimed not to demonise, but rather portray the struggles faced by many in the Korean education system.

Another intriguing aspect of the Q&A delved into the film's attempt to approach a potentially cliché topic with a fresh perspective. Director Hur emphasised his focus on portraying multi-dimensional characters, steering clear of simplistic notions of 'good' and 'bad.' He explained,

"I tried to show that the characters are not one-dimensional. Though some have 'good' in them, they also have a not-so-good side."

In essence, 'A Normal Family' captivated audiences not only with its compelling narrative but also with its director's commitment to authenticity and nuanced representations.

The event was closed with an informal reception attended not only by Director Hur Jin-ho but also Korean Cultural Centre UK Director, Dr. Seunghye Sun, and the senior management team from the Korea Cultural Heritage Foundation, as well as the LKFF team. The reception was made even more unique with the confectionaries served by Korea House. While treating ourselves in taraegwa omija ade - a reinterpretation of Korea’s royal dessert and herb tea introduced as part of the Visit Korean Heritage campaign - we spoke to other attendees, shared thoughts about the film and were even lucky enough to take a picture with Director Hur.

As we left the BFI, Marianna, Shai, and I found ourselves engrossed in discussions about the film's intricate layers and the thought-provoking questions posed during the Q&A.

The London Korean Film Festival has set the bar high with this opening gala, promising an array of cinematic gems to unfold in the days to come.

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