Red Family (Bulg-eun gajog)

Korea (2013) Dir. Lee Ju-Hyoung

Kim Ki-Duk is a director whose reputation as a provocative filmmaker not only precedes him but also well deserved. Therefore, it will come as quite the surprise to many to learn that Kim wrote this relatively conventional (for him) drama, which he also produced and edited, leaving the directing to first timer Lee Ju-Hyoung.

The Kim family – Seung-hae (Kim Yu-mi), her husband Jae-hong (Jung Woo), her father-in-law Myung-sik (Son Byeong-ho) and teenage daughter Min-ji (Park So-young) – are just like any other South Korean family, like their neighbours the Lee family – hardworking dad (Park Byeong-eun), wasteful wife (Kang Eun-jin), bullied son Chang-su (Oh Jae-moo) and Grandma (Kang Do-eun).

Except the Kims are actually four highly trained North Korean agents posing as a tight-knit family in the South to gather info and assassinate deserters and traitors under the instruction of another Northern spy nicknamed Jackrabbit (Kim Byung-Ok). While ruthlessly efficient in their jobs, the Kim’s begin to actually bond as a genuine family until whilst striking up and unlikely friendship with the Lees.

A subject like the North vs. South divide in Korea is one most people would dread to see in the hands of such a deviant mind like Kim Ki-Duk although it is not a new topic for him, having covered it previously in his script for 2011’s Poongsan (a clip of which is shown during a trip to the cinema), which was more of an action based flick – Red Family is considerably lighter, especially with the political commentary.

This time Kim’s objective is to explore the importance of the familial bond, largely through the neighbouring clans, despite one being purely fraudulent, and the incentive for the Kim family. The North vs. South aspect is designed to add a little spice to the Kim family behind the façade as regular folk, but isn’t exploited for the sake of critical rhetoric.

For the first act of the film, which crams a lot in due to the hasty jump cut editing style, the Kims behind closed doors are not a likeable bunch, resolutely truthful to their cause and the regime in the North. Seung-hae is in fact the Chief Commander and, behind closed doors, a right nasty piece of work to boot, slapping her team for the slightest infraction or misstep.

Ironically she is the first to openly crack when it comes to being affected by the pressure of their mission, the motivator being the lives of their families back in the North should they mess up or disobey an order. Seung-hae’s admonishments of weakness against her comrades comes back on her when she fails to kill the child of a traitor (her own daughter is her collateral) and Min-Ji finishes the job instead.   

The others however are way ahead of Seung-hae in questioning the nature of their mission and desperately miss their families, unable to hide it as well as she does. This is where the Lee family come into play – offering more than a curious juxtaposition of the philosophical divide but also a gateway for the Kim’s to realise what is missing from their lives.

Mr. and Mrs. Lee are forever fighting because she likes to spend her husband’s wages which is not enough for her expensive tastes so she borrows from a loan shark, whom she can’t pay back. She is a hard woman to sympathise with since her character is usually in the wrong yet immaturely blames her husband for it and is offended when he gets angry at her!

Predictably Grandma Lee takes a liking to Myung-Sik and as a former North resident prior to the Korean War, they have a lot in common besides old age and loneliness. Elsewhere romance blossoms between Min-Ji and Chang-su, the former angry at the latter being bullied for money so she steps in (off camera) to resolve it.

This is the first step in the two families paying regular visits to one another and the thawing of hostilities between the two sides, the Kim’s gradually enjoying the frivolous treats of this so-called decadent lifestyle. But they almost expose themselves when the news comes on and they ferociously defend Kim Jong-Un against the ridicule meted out by the Lee family, which they inexplicably are unable to detect.

If this scene was shown in isolation one would assume this film was a comedy, as they might if they saw a later scene where the Kim’s use their deadly fighting skills to send the loan shark packing. Compare this to the aforementioned scene involving the toddler (not explicit but the suggestion is upsetting enough), acts of misogynistic violence or the distressing finale, it feels as if our emotions are being pulled in different directions.

Being presented from a Southern point of view Kim could have portrayed the interlopers from the North as cold, emotionless zealots which he does to a point but not without the requisite element of flexibility within their personalities to make some headway in ingratiating them to the audience. Even to the end their political beliefs are largely unwavering but they the intrinsic message is they are human beings too.

As first time director Lee Ju-Hyoung handles things well enough, if without any real distinction and certainly – and smartly – doesn’t ape Kim Ki-Duk’s style in any way. Luckily he has a top notch cast to work, in particular the Kim family who make the most out of the often clunky script and changeable moods, making the characters feel real and human. Kim Yu-mi switches rather scarily between calm and rigidly officious as Seung-hae while youngster Park So-young impresses in her debut role of Min-Ji.

Having Kim Ki-Duk’s name attached to Red Family sets expectations to high therefore it is likely to disappoint his hardcore fans as this doesn’t feel like his work. Decent enough as it is, perhaps Kim is better off exploring the darker reaches of his own deranged mind and leave the mainstream stuff to others?