Thursday, September 11, 2014

KOFFIA 2014 Review: THE DINNER Offers Too Many Cold Servings

By Hieu Chau

Creating a compelling domestic family drama is never an easy task mainly due to the stories these films have to tell. The narrative of a family drama is almost never about something new but it definitely takes a certain type of filmmaker to be able to evoke something profound and invigorating out of typically ordinary circumstances. Director Kim Dong-hyun tries his hardest to be that type of filmmaker with his latest family drama, The Dinner, but unfortunately lacks the astute direction and strong scripting that a poised filmmaker such as Japan's Hirokazu Koreeda possesses.

While one can be easily led to believe that the film’s centrepiece moment concerns a family dinner, typical of the family drama, this isn’t the case with Kim’s film. There is no hysterical family breakdown and no big fight that distances the family for a time. Instead of building to a dramatic crescendo, The Dinner opts for a multi-narrative approach and spreads several stories across its admittedly bloated running time.

As a result, Kim’s slowly gestating film isn’t short on drama but collectively is quite a difficult piece to digest. Given that there are quite a few stories in the film, describing the overall narrative is difficult as there really isn’t much of an cohesive arc to speak of.

The closest thing that may resemble this is the story involving the troubled child of the family, Jae-hyeon, whose story, which begins with the family trying to figure out what to do with the baby boy, bookends the film. Apart from this, Kim’s film plays it loose, relying on his characters to advance the film with each of their own struggles. However, Kim’s characters aren’t a memorable bunch.

There’s the eldest brother In-cheol, who is struggling to provide for himself and his ill wife, Hye-jeong; Gyeong-jin, the eldest daughter raising her troublesome child as a single mother with the help of her elderly parents, and In-ho, a service driver who believes he inadvertently killed one of his clients. The elderly parents have a brief story involving the mother’s birthday, which the adult children forget about due to their own problems, but this is never realised. In fact, the parents are a bit of an afterthought in the film.

The film's family is a hapless bunch, of that there is no doubt, but their individual stories of struggle and lack of defined character makes The Dinner rather unappealing. None of their stories correspond or complement one another as Kim goes from one sad case to the next without much rhyme or reason. Conflicts are introduced but aren’t satisfyingly resolved and questions are raised but aren’t ever answered which leaves a lot to be desired in The Dinner.

To that end, the biggest danger when it comes to these types of dramas is its depiction of a terribly plain family. Yes, ordinary families exist in film but if there isn’t anything striking or remarkable about them or their situations, it can create a feeling of indifference in the audience. It’s hard to root for a character or their family when the film doesn’t give a compelling case for an audience to do so and Kim, who tries to create an emotionally distraught picture with his image of a broken family, isn’t able to accomplish this with.

With too many stories to keep up with which never come to fruition, Kim Dong-hyun’s unfocused and wavering multi-narrative drama is too dreary and dull to inspire interest. In the end, The Dinner simply offers one too many cold dishes and struggles with the breadth of stories it clumsily balances.

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