Exploring the Family Unit in World Cinema: From Dogtooth and Volver to Minari

Cinema can be a powerful medium in transporting audiences to other worlds that are brimming with imagination and fantasy. But, it can also be a powerful way to bring audiences into the shoes of people who are dealing with issues and matters that are prescient in the real world. No matter what nationality or gender one is, the concept of family is undoubtedly universal.

With today marking the Australian release of the acclaimed family drama Minari, we explore a selection of international (mostly non-English-language) films that explore the many viewpoints and interpretations of what cinematic family dramas can be.

Treasuring Family Memories

Summer Hours follows the story of the Marly family, who are visiting their mother Helene (Edith Scob) for her 75th birthday. She contacts her three children Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), Frederic (Charles Berling) and Jeremie (Jeremie Renier) on the occasion to discuss her declining health and that she wants the three to decide what to do with her valuable art collection.

One of the things that makes the film so special is writer/director Olivier Assayas’ skill in conveying the permanence of life under a potentially melodramatic story. The cinematography by Eric Gautier achieves a rhythmic stillness that borders on tranquillity; while the editing by Luc Barnier is precise in its timing and yet sensitive in its transitions as scenes fade to black (bringing credibility in how Assayas treasures the minute yet earned emotions from the characters). Even the timing of the music ensures the emotional beats are on solid ground.

No matter how the characters are struggling to deal with the concept of mortality in terms of their mother, Assayas never treats them as pawns of extracting emotion out of the audience. He treats them as real people – ambitious, loyal, flawed, uninitiated, guarded – within a universal issue and the ensemble cast do great work with the characters.

But the most noteworthy factor of the film is how Assayas manages to convey the power inanimate objects have to trigger memories within us. Whether objects are considered valuable in both monetary (the antiques), utilitarian (the phone birthday gift to Helene) or sentimental ways (the broken statue that Frederic broke), the concept of self-appointed worth is something that can never be bought, quantified or forgotten.

A beautifully understated piece of work from Olivier Assayas that explores a family unit dealing with the preciousness of life and cherished memories that is free from sentimentality, Summer Hours is well worth treasuring.

Summer Hours is available on DVD/Blu-Ray, courtesy of the Criterion Collection.

A Dissolving Family Unit

A Separation tells the story of Nader (Peyman Maadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami), who are under a period of separation due to demands that may or may not be seen as selfish. Simin wants to move out of Iran with their daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), while Nader wants to stay behind to care for his ailing father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi).

During that time, Nader hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat), under the recommendation of Simin’s sister-in-law, to care for his father while he is out attending to his job. She is a devout woman with a daughter, Somayeh (Kimia Hosseini), and along with her husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), they live in the poor district in Tehran.

Razieh accepts the job – even with the hardship of travelling as well as her 4-month pregnancy – without her husband’s consent in order for her husband to pay off creditors. But through a series of occurrences eventuates a conflict that will affect the two families forever.

Writer/director Asghar Farhadi is best known for his works that feature impeccable storytelling about the social, gender and class differences in modern Iran, as well as his assured hand in telling human interest stories that are thematically powerful.

A Separation, is his best film yet. Exploring family roles under the crushing position of following filial duty and religious devotion with exacting pacing and gripping tension, Farhadi stages his film like a pressure cooker as the actions of the characters start to simmer into something that is incredibly stressful, yet remarkably human to experience. The characters commit actions that are self-serving and malicious. But, Farhadi never looks down on them; lending them a sense of empathy that ensures the storytelling never feels didactic or simplistic, but morally ambiguous.

Remarkably complex, precisely directed and heartbreakingly stressful, A Separation is a marvel of filmmaking that shows Farhadi as a master filmmaker as he takes human interest stories and lends them weight by showing the ordinary as extraordinary.

A Separation is available to view for free on SBS on Demand.

The Brink Of Family Grief

Based on a popular Korean fairy tale Janghwa Hongryeon jeon, A Tale of Two Sisters follows the story of the two titular sisters Su-mi (Im Soo-jung) and Su-yeon (Moon Geun-yeung), who are just arriving back home after time spent in a mental hospital for reasons that not disclosed. Su-yeon’s shows a willingness to get along with the family, while Su-mi is still cold toward her father and harbours an intense hatred for their step-mother Eun-joo (Yeon Jeong-ah). But to be fair, Eun-joo is definitely not the maternal type. Underneath the Stepford Wife-esque smile belies an icy interior that masks her utter disdain for her new daughters.

But, as it turns out, the awkward family business is the least of their problems. Spooky events start to happen in the house to the alarm of the sisters. Do these events hint toward something more supernatural? Or do they, instead, hint toward something far more sinister that seethes within the family, aching to get out in the open?

This is, perhaps, one of the few odd choices that is made for this article due to its genre aspirations. But, underneath the psychological horror storytelling lies a poignant and tragic family drama. Director Kim does a great job in assembling the requisite scares that are always tinged in human emotion rather than just scaring audiences for entertainment’s sake. But, it is when the family conflicts come into place that makes the film soar.

The motivations for the characters all stem from a tragic event that fosters anger, resentment and sorrow. However, in Kim’s hands, he teases and suffocates the audience, withholding exposition as to whether the characters are acting out their pain or they are under submission due to supernatural forces.

When the tragic twist is revealed, the seeds of human drama begin to flourish and the motivations become clear, it not only shocks the audience, but makes them question their allegiance towards the characters. This lends a sense of poignancy that is unexpected in a horror film such as this.

From the beautifully melancholic score by Lee Byung-woo to the striking set design (drenched in the colour red, which can have various meanings in both Western and Korean cultures), the soothing cinematography by Lee Mo-gae and the fantastically double-sided performances from the cast, A Tale of Two Sisters shows that the horror in humanity is scarier and more haunting than anything the supernatural can come up with.

A Tale of Two Sisters is available to purchase on Blu-Ray, courtesy of Palisades Tartan.

Family As A Microcosm Of Society

Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa is best known for being a horror filmmaker who finds true fear even in the most common scenarios. Whether the fear comes from the more genre focused topics like the supernatural or serial killers to the more humane-focused topics like human disconnect and cultural customs; or even as innocuous the use of a plastic bag or red duct tape, Kurosawa has a remarkable skill in getting under one’s skin.

In the case of Tokyo Sonata, Kurosawa strays away from the horror conventions altogether and yet somehow, he has made his scariest film yet. But what is it that makes it such a frightening movie even when it has very little violence or threat? Kurosawa explores issues that are widely present around us but is rarely talked about on-screen at this small, yet incisive scale; and those issues are the economic crises on the family unit.

Tokyo Sonata contains the same stillness that permeates Kurosawa’s work, and here it is utilised effectively in showcasing the viewpoints of the characters. The melodic pacing becomes gradually agonising when the environmental conditions that our characters are living in are closing in on them. When Ryuhei tries to avoid telling his family of the financial situation, the members of the family are trying to attain a level of happiness (Megumi wants to drive a car, Kenji wants to learn how to play the piano and Takashi wants to join the military).

Kurosawa essentially shows the Sasaki family as a microcosm of Japanese society; going through issues of unemployment, family disconnect and the inner conflict of being your best self as opposed to being your honest self. However, Ryuhei is trying to be the immovable object against the unstoppable force. But, whether it is for his family or for his pride is hard to decipher.

He belittles his son Kenji on taking piano lessons to the point where he sends him to the hospital with a minor concussion; he forbids his son Takashi from joining the military unless it is only for the sake of Japan and he refuses to admit that his wife knows about his predicament. In comparison to his friend Kurosu (Kanji Tsuda), he has been unemployed for three months and has come up with ways to avoid suspicion from his wife. But over time, he suspects that his wife knows and invites Ryuhei for a family dinner to avoid suspicion; which leads to a tragic conclusion.

The way the story goes is that all the characters face their struggles until they end up with an epiphany which plays out in cruelly ironic, bleakly amusing (especially when a robber character played by Koji Yakusho becomes involved) and beautifully poignant ways. The characters never really express their true feelings to one another, but like the excessive cleaning the parents conduct in the film; you have to know you’re dirty in order to become clean.

Overall, Tokyo Sonata is a masterwork from director Kiyoshi Kurosawa as he strays away from the supernatural and veers toward the domestic and social drama and comes up with his scariest film yet; a bleak social indictment on contemporary Japan revolving around a middle-class family that is agonizingly ironic yet undeniably watchable.

Tokyo Sonata is available to view (with a paid subscription) on Mubi.

The Poison of Patriarchy

A Death in the Gunj follows the story of Shutu (Vikrant Massey), a meek and gentle young man who is in McCluskieganj for a family reunion. Now this should sound like a happy occasion for everyone. Yet, all of Shutu’s relatives and friends basically turn him into a human punching bag; throwing pranks and jokes at him under the guise of good-natured fun. However, the prodding that Shutu goes through (along with his personal baggage) has a consequence that will affect everyone as he is pushed to a point of no return.

A Death in the Gunj is the directorial debut from actress Konkona Sen Sharma; best known in this critic’s mind for her great performance in the dark comedy Lipstick Under My Burkha. For her first film, she has made an assured piece of work that conveys the burden of filial expectations and male masculinity in ways that will make one squirm without the need for blatant provocations.

Sharma lays out the distinct characters in the family with economy and efficiency; laying out their personalities through interactions (or lack thereof) that are instantly relatable no matter what nationality you are. But Sharma gradually conveys that under the jubilant air lies a lot of skeletons in people’s closets. The patriarchy is rampant as Shutu is always told to “grow up” or “man up” and is put through the ringer after a sports game goes wrong. From people like the overly controlling Nandu (Gulshan Devaiah) belittling him while teaching him how to drive; to the incredibly brash Vikram (Ranvir Shorey), who brags on about his social status while comparing Shutu to himself; the passive-aggressive attitudes are not shied away from.

But things take on a strange way when the family participates in a séance where it is all played for laughs but Shutu takes offence. It is later revealed that he is still grieving over the recent passing of his father. Along with his poor test scores from his university venture and the constant toying from family friend, the sexy and promiscuous Mimi (Kalki Koechlin) who still harbours feelings for Vikram; the film highlights the ghastly norms within family relations (and the world in general) on how patriarchy is allowed to go on and how ingrained it is in our lives. The sheer lack of empathy (or even a modicum of active listening) is enraging to say the least and the climactic ending that results is both shocking and inevitable.

With beautifully sunny cinematography that balances grit and warmth in a way that belies a seething fire and a top-notch cast who handle their roles with vigor (Massey plays Shutu in such a vulnerable manner that he figuratively shrinks throughout the film), A Death in the Gunj is a confidently made family drama that shows that behind every joke, there is a hint of truth that can be laced with poisonous malice.

A Death in the Gunj is available to view (with a paid subscription) on Amazon Prime.

Off-Kilter Parenting

You know the expression that parents would say that they do not want their children to ever grow up and want them to stay cute forever? Well, the Greek black comedy Dogtooth by Yorgos Lanthimos takes that expression and stretches it to the extreme. Ideas of home-schooling, helicopter parenting and self-institution and indoctrination are taken to dizzying and shocking heights of stark violence and depravity, that shows that there is no true view of a family unit.

The film is seemingly set in the future and it follows the story of an upper-class Greek family of five – husband, wife, two teenage daughters and one adult son. But, what makes the film different from other works of its type is how the parents care for their children.

The parents keep their children in a state of imprisonment in the home and inform them of the outside world as a dangerous place inhabited with man-eating cats. The children are taught about the major facets of life through audio tapes and objects are introduced to them in incorrectly off-putting ways; like how a salt shaker could mean a television remote, for example. Their exercise routines consist of the children on their knees barking like dogs while their father reprimands them.

As expected with the age of the children, their views on sex are both disturbingly innocuous and hilariously passive. The sisters would often trade items for body licks (either the elbows or the legs) while the son is given sexual favours from an employee working under his father. With all of these comings and goings, the children are becoming more bored and agitated and begin to devise a way to escape the family home.

Seen as an antithesis of a coming-of-age film, a sci-fi what-if fantasy and a dark comedy about subverting the portrayal of the family unit, Dogtooth is like the cinematic equivalent of a beautifully immaculate photo album where every single photo has something off-kilter about it and yet you will not want to throw any photo away due to how bafflingly funny those idiosyncrasies are.

Dogtooth is available on DVD courtesy of Madman.

Family Reunions Through Assimilation

Farewell Amor follows the story of a family of Angolan immigrants. Walter (Ntare Mwine) has left Angola and has reunited with his young daughter Sylvia (Jayme Lawson) and Esther (Zainab Jah) after a seventeen year separation in the United States. The film follows their stories in three distinct chapters, exploring how the characters assimilate and cope in terms of differences in culture, religion, lifestyle as well as discrimination and pursuits of happiness.

For Walter, he has become used to the customs in the US and he has had a new relationship in Esther’s absence. For Sylvia, she has been estranged from her father for a long time and the two are basically strangers; and due to her mother’s parenting, she feels restricted in who she wants to be and dances to help her cope. For Esther, she has filled the void of homesickness by adopting christianity; which has changed her to the point that Walter no longer recognises her. All three of them suffer the shared pain of homesickness but it is their individual conflicts that they have come to terms with in order to become a family again.

Writer/director Ekwa Msangi makes her feature-length debut here and she has a done a marvellous job in telling the experience of immigration through three different viewpoints. The storytelling is clever in how it gradually reveals layers of the characterisations, which we slowly empathise with them. Viewpoints of one towards another feel real and relatable in how frustrating it can be not to get the bigger picture; which reflects the journeys in a succinct manner.

The drama is compellingly understated and surprisingly relatable; making it easy for audiences to empathize. The acting from the three leads is fantastic. Mwine is subtle yet compelling in the role of Walter, who struggles to remain composed as she tries to comprehend his family’s predicaments while working hard to support them. Lawson is convincing in the role of Sylvia, who feels the weight of obligation for her mother over her embracing her love of dancing. The most impressive of the three is Jah, who has the most difficult role to play. She has to tip-toe the fine line between being worrisome and being restrictive in terms of the film’s storytelling and she pulls it off with dramatic aplomb; especially when the film reaches the final act.

Overall, Farewell Amor is a remarkably understanding and assured piece of work that takes an initially esoteric tale of filial duty, tradition, distance and compassion and makes it universal thanks to wonderful acting and Msangi’s effortless direction.

Farewell Amor is available to view (with a paid subscription) on Mubi.

The Mother of Family’s Past

Acclaimed writer/director Pedro Almodovar is no stranger to melodramas. And he is certainly no stranger to telling female-centric stories that highlight everything that makes women individual and singular. In the case of his 2006 film Volver, he has created one of his best works ever; a passionate, humane and wonderfully idiosyncratic comedy-drama about the returning ghosts of past burdens.

The film essentially follows a Spanish family in Madrid; living in a small village where the men die young (in the case of the film, they only play incidental characters) and in the beginning of the film, the women clean up their gravestones as if they are performing house chores.

We have Raimunda (Penelope Cruz) and Sole (Lola Duenas), two sisters who are a constant presence in each other’s lives; we also have Paula (Yohana Cobo), Raimunda’s teenage daughter; Agustina (Blanca Portillo), a long-time family friend who is neighbours with the sisters’ Aunt Paula (Chus Lampreave), an elderly invalid, dementia-stricken woman.

Through a series of events involving murder, ghosts (embodied by Raimunda and Sole’s mother Irene, played by Carmen Maura) guilt, grief and cooking; the shared history of all these characters will be the beginning of a journey that will take them on an emotional ride filled with revelations, joy, inner peace and contentment.

Almodovar has always been a fan of cinematic dramas in the 1950’s; especially the work of Douglas Sirk. So, the use of colour in Volver is smothered in shades of red; signifying love, passion, anger and inner fire. Aided by the stellar cinematography and art direction of Jose Luis Alcaine and Salvador Parra, all those shades are what our lead characters have in them as they go through various hardships.

Hardships like a mother protecting her daughter from consequential actions, atoning for their actions to make up for their children – but all under the strong support of the women around them; populated by neighbours, hard workers, labourers, prostitutes, shop owners, bartenders, bakers. The shared community between the women is wonderfully wholesome, amusingly peculiar and downright compelling in how much they support each other.

Even with the convoluted plot and the high risk of sentimentality, Almodovar swerves through the various tones and moods like an experienced painter; all smooth brush strokes and vibrant use of colours. It helps that he writes his characters as innately smart and emotionally intelligent, even when faced with outlandish circumstances such as the supposed appearance of ghosts. Even the use of absurdist humour is to be commended i.e when someone notices a blood-stain on Raimunda, she brushes it off and says it’s “women’s trouble”.

But we cannot forget the cast of actresses who help support Almodovar’s vision. Cruz is a force of nature as Raimunda, a woman who is trying her best to hold herself together as she balances out her filial duty, her compassion for the friends and loved ones, her clutch on her anger towards her mother and covering up a crime; all conveyed so vividly through a gamut of emotions as smooth as Almodovar’s direction.

Duenas is a hoot as the more moody, cautious Sole, who has to contend with the notion that her mother’s presence in her life may not be as outlandish as it is cracked up to be. Portillo is amazing as Agustina, as she shows warmth, compassion and an unsettling unease as she tries to find out the truth about her mother’s disappearance. Maura makes a marvellous return under the direction of Almodovar; displaying the vivacity that made their collaborations so great; but also displaying a greater level of nuance to the character of Irene that makes her guilt over her daughters so poignant.

Overall, Volver is Almodovar at his compassionate best; composing an exuberantly realized family drama with brimming infatuation over the power and beauty of women. For those who have not explored his filmography, Volver is your best bet to start jumping into his body of work.

Volver is available to view for free on SBS on Demand.

Minari is in Australian cinemas today

Harris Dang

Rotten Tomatoes-approved Film Critic. Also known as that handsome Asian guy you see in the cinema with a mask on.