Movie Review: The Quiet Family
Director Kim Jee-woon is one of the most successful directors in Korean cinema and is responsible for a range of hit films from the so-called kimchi Western of The Good, the Bad, and the Weird back to A Tale of Two Sisters, a film that is arguably one of the greatest horror films made. With a filmography full of successful genre films, perhaps it was no surprise that he was frequently asked to direct in Hollywood and early this year saw the release of the first film he made with Hollywood, the Arnold Schwarzenegger comeback action film, The Last Stand.
Interestingly enough, Kim Jee-woon got his start with a black comedy called The Quiet Family, a story about a family, the Kangs, that buys a lodge on a mountain and runs it together. Unfortunately business is slow and no hikers have yet opted to stay at the lodge. One evening the family gets their first paying guest only to discover in the morning that he committed suicide overnight. With the questionable vanishing of the guest’s wallet and high potential for bad publicity, the family patriarch (Park In-hwan) decides that they will keep the death quiet and bury the body in the mountain.
But as more guests arrive and die under a variety of circumstances, the family members find themselves having to hide an increasing number of bodies as each new guest brings another complication into their lives.
Despite the macabre subject matter, the film is frequently hilarious and that is largely due to both the characterization of the often awkward family members as well as some great moments of dramatic irony. The desperation that they show for getting paying customers early on in the film has them running outside and lining up to invite passing hikers to stay or having all six of them earnestly watch as a guest fills out the guestbook, but the result is more creepy than inviting; hilariously, their earnestness is actually what drives away the early guests.
One thing that’s particularly interesting about the story is how the family adapts to their circumstances. While hiding the first body is a frightening act for them, each successive corpse becomes less of a life-and-death situation and more of a nuisance until a more serious complication arises. The casual way that the family adjusts to the deaths that happen around them is amusingly cynical.
The film suffers a few minor hiccups, mostly at the film’s ending, where it fails to resolve a couple subplots and the character logic gets a little harder to swallow. I think it will be fridge logic for most since the film’s finale happens so quickly, but some viewers might find it bothersome, despite the amusing irony of the film’s end.
In addition to the mostly intelligent and darkly comic script, the film also benefits from excellent performances by a bevy of highly talented actors, many whom have become top stars in Korea since this project, including a young Song Kang-ho as the perverted and somewhat delinquent son Young-min, Choi Min-shik as his nice-guy uncle, and minor appearances by Jung Jae-young and Jung Woong-in as some of the troublemaking hikers. Even with all this nascent star power, the veterans Park In-hwan and Na Mun-hee manage to hold their own as the parents and young Go Ho-kyung is surprisingly captivating as the unreadable youngest daughter, Mina.
Furthermore, for a first feature, The Quiet Family is rich in both directorial prowess and production design with a stylish-but-not-too-flashy floating camera intro that settles into a genuinely calm tone that appropriately, but quietly, gets darker and more askew as the film’s events get crazier. However, Kim Jee-woon is never too heavy handed with his direction, letting his story and his characters do the heavy work, only pressing in as a director to help convey their perspectives.
Finally, like the majority of his output before The Last Stand, The Quiet Family has excellent production design with the lodge’s dark green wallpaper, dark finish, and close quarters working in concert with Jung Gwang-seok’s cool tempered cinematography that grows more foreboding and soaked in unstable neons or weak incandescents, matching the increasing darkness of the film. The sets, costumes, and lighting not only look good, but they look appropriate for their scenes and add to the overall tone of the film.
The Quiet Family was an auspicious start for director Kim Jee-woon, and maybe it’s no small surprise that such a film was loaded with talent that would go on to become major stars. With a darkly ironic script, deliciously awkward characters, artistic but never impractical production elements, and just the right amount of style in the direction, it’s not hard to forgive the film of its perhaps too-quickly-resolved end. The Quiet Family will likely remain one of the best dark comedies to come out of Korea and serve as a reminder alongside The Foul King that director Kim’s original vision is just as good outside of dedicated genre film as it is within it. 9/10.
Note: There appear to still be Hong Kong-originated DVDs of the film available for purchase from importers. I’ve read some complaints about poor English language subtitling on these versions and it seems like the U.S. edition by Tai Seng is based on the Hong Kong version as well.