It takes courage to tell a story that’s been told three times before—and directorial skill to make that story compelling—both of which are evident in director Hur Jin-ho’s 2023 film A Normal Family. The film is based on the bestselling Dutch novel Het Diner by Herman Koch, which was published in 2009. The novel has already inspired three adaptations, all titled The Dinner. The Dutch version was released in 2013, starring Jacob Derwig and Thecla Reuten. The Italian version followed in 2014, starring Alessandro Gassman and Giovanna Mezzogiorno, while the U.S. version, starring Richard Gere and Laura Linney, was released in 2017.
Whatever inspired Hur to adapt a novel that had already produced three films, it’s a good thing he did, because A Normal Family is everything a good film should be. With some beautiful pacing, a well written script and excellent acting by Jang Dong-gun, Kim Hee-ae, Claudia Kim and Sol Kyung-gu, the film relays the book’s intent and heartbreakingly explores the malleable nature of morality.
In the film Jang plays Jae-gyu a pediatrician, who looks down on his successful lawyer brother, Jae-won, played by Sol. Jae-gyu does not approve of his brother’s choice of clients or the crass methods he uses to defend them. Jae-gyu and his wife, played by Kim Hee-ae, volunteer and do good work. While Sol considers himself the smarter and more realistic brother, Jae-gyu is sure that he’s morally superior. Since childhood the brothers have relentlessly engaged in such one-upmanship.
An incident involving their teenage children further rocks the balance of their already rocky relationship. As a result of this incident Jae-gyu must wonder how far he will go to save his son. Jae-gyu’s wife also considers herself a moral person, but when it comes to protecting her son, she won’t hesitate to dispose of blood stains. It’s an often shocking story about right and wrong, the rich getting away with murder, but it’s also a tale about parenthood, how the desire to protect one’s children supersedes all rational morality. Jang Dong-gun and Kim Hae-ee deliver great performances as parents who lose their moral compass. There’s a memorable scene where Jang Dong-gun sits quietly, his face sagging with existential exhaustion. His son is a teen, almost beyond his control and yet still in need of his father’s protection. To protect him, Jae-gyu must sacrifice his sense or moral superiority.
In the book, the two couples meet for dinner at an outrageously expensive restaurant and in between courses slowly begin to unravel. Most of the novel’s action takes place in flashbacks, with the characters indulging in their own thoughts and memories. Hur set the film between a sequence of meals, so that the story’s narrative unfolds in three acts. Each act features a dinner in which decisions must be made and a hierarchy of truth established. As in many of Hur’s other wonderful cinematic creations, the films Forbidden Dream, The Last Princess and his TV drama Lost, the director explores what constitutes our notion of civilized behavior, a temporary agreement to cooperate that might at any moment break down. As it so often does—within families and within societies.
The film debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival and opens The London Korean Film Festival on Nov. 2.