“The Quiet Family” is the debut film by Korean director Kim Ji-Woon, who has been attracting a considerable amount of attention recently with his complex and multi-layered “A Tale of Two Sisters”. The two films are similar in a number of basic ways, and both are concerned with macabre events that befall dysfunctional families in isolated rural areas. However, whilst “Sisters” was a tragic exploration of grief and guilt, “The Quiet Family” is a black comedy which is by turns hilarious, grisly, and moving.
The film shares its plot with Takashi Miike’s “The Happiness of The Katakuris”, which is basically a musical reworking of the same story. Of the two, “The Quiet Family” is probably the better film as, though lacking the amusing insanity and set pieces of Miike’s effort, it has a real emotional core, and a genuinely likable set of well-written characters whose antics are both entertaining and affecting. By spending as much time on the relationships between these people and on their situation as he does on the more unpleasant aspects of the film, Ji-Woon manages to achieve the rare success of perfectly balancing horror and comedy without having to resort to spoofing or over the top gore.
The film’s title refers to the Kang family, who moves to a remote mountain area to run a hotel for hikers. The family is a mixed bunch, consisting of the mother (Mun-hee Na, recently in the lame comedy “Please Teach me English”) and father (In-hwan Park, from “One Fine Spring Day”), an uncle (Min-sik Choi, star of the excellent “Oldboy”), a son with a criminal past (Kang-ho Song, “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance”), and two daughters, the elder of which is desperate for love, and the younger (Ho-kyung Go, also in the director’s “Foul King”) who is cynical, vaguely gothic, and provides the narration for the film.
After a long, lean period without any guests, a lone, mysterious stranger turns up at the hotel, takes a room for the night, and promptly commits suicide. Terrified of attracting bad publicity to their already ailing enterprise, the older members of the family decide to bury the corpse in the woods rather than report it to the police. Unfortunately this sets in motion a chain of events and a rapidly increasing number of cadavers for them to deal with as they desperately try to keep their hotel running and to conceal the deaths from the rest of the family.
The film’s main strength is undoubtedly its characters. Ji-Woon, who also wrote the film, made the effort of creating a believable family, whose bickering, arguments and relationships with each other are realistic and engrossing. Each character has distinct personalities, secrets, desires and motives, and each goes through their own character arc during the course of the film, generating not only viewer interest, but also sympathy. This gives the film an excellent grounding, and as well as adding impact to the scenes of horror, it increases both the tension and frantic comedy as events become more surreal and the situation for the family begins to look increasingly bleak.
Ji-Woon is not only utilizing his characters to drive events, but also to generate atmosphere and mood, especially through Ho-kyung Go’s deadpan narration. The ways in which the family members instigate their own subplots and follow their own desires before ultimately coming together is actually quite touching and inspirational. The cast is thankfully excellent, and really brings their characters to life, with special attention paid to the smallest details and nuances. This is quite different from so many genre films, especially those attempting to fuse comedy and horror, which are generally filled with characters that are little more than stereotypes or obviously constructed walking jokes. Min-sik Choi is particularly good as the uncle, a quiet, lovelorn and adaptable man. Also good is Kang-ho Song, who puts in a manic performance as the sex-obsessed son suspected of foul play.
Ji-Woon’s direction is confident and assured for a debut director, and he wisely eschews cheap shocks and forced laughs in favor of a gradual rise in tension and in generating a somber, creepy atmosphere. The hotel itself resembles the house in “A Tale of Two Sisters”, with a rich tapestry of pale colors, creaking floors and strange angles all giving it its own melancholy personality. This provides the perfect setting for the film’s events, and its oppressive, tomb-like feel acts as an effective and gloomy trap for the family as their situation worsens. The exteriors are similarly well shot, with the bare trees and ominous mountains enclosing the house like a graveyard, increasing the sense of isolation, and in a thematic sense, pushing the family closer together against such cold, lonely surroundings.
The film moves along at a brisk pace, and although there are only a few standout scenes, Ji-Woon keeps things interesting through the shenanigans of the characters themselves. The story itself is fairly predictable, especially as it is made quite clear early on that pretty much every visitor to the hotel is marked for death in one way or another. However, the characters themselves are unpredictable, and this keeps the viewer interested in their reactions to events, as well as their ultimate fates.
There are a few ‘action’ scenes for genre fans, and things do frequently get quite bloody, especially during the corpse disposals and a few outbreaks of violence. However, these parts of the film, whilst unpleasant, are not gratuitous, and are quite often played for their comical rather than visceral impact.
Overall, “The Quiet Family” is an excellent film, an amusing and engaging black comedy that should appeal not only to fans of Asian cinema but to viewers in general. It plays upon the universal theme of family, and through investing time in its characters, whilst not stinting on its more horrific elements, the end result is a film which is well worth seeking out.
Ji-woon Kim (director) / Ji-woon Kim (screenplay)
CAST: In-hwan Park …. Tae-gu Kang
Mun-hee Na …. Mrs. Kang
Kang-ho Song …. Yeong-min Kang
Min-sik Choi …. Uncle
Ho-kyung Go …. Mi-na Kang
Yun-seong Lee …. Mi-su Kang