The Quiet Family (조용한 가족, Kim Jee-woon: 1998)

The Kang family have moved from the city to the countryside to start a family business by opening their own lodge. When the very first guest at the house seems to commit suicide, the family panic over what to do. Fearing that the death of their guest will bring bad luck and a bad reputation to their business, they decide to hide the body themselves. Unfortunately for them this is just the first of a series of misfortunes to fall upon them…

The directorial debut of Kim Jee-woon, The Quiet Family is possibly the least known of his films in the West, however this black comedy was a hit on it’s release in Korea and was remade by Takashi Miike into The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001) – a film that might be more widely known by the average western film fan. While Happiness took the core of Kim Jee-woon’s flick, Miike also injected all sorts of bizarreness into proceedings, including animation and full blown musical sequences. In comparison The Quiet Family seems a lot more reserved, but once it gets into it’s swing it becomes clear that The Quiet Family has all sorts of its own cleverness – its a playful comedy that carefully walks the line between drama, horror and fully blown farce.

The Quiet Family starts gently – although slickly – enough with its hip-hop opening credits and gentle panning around the family hotel before focusing down on Go Ho-kyung as Min-na, the youngest daughter in the Kang family. These few minutes alone give us a clue as to the style of film that Kim Jee-woon will give us – and indeed has continued to give us throughout his career – as he demonstrates a sharp knack for showcasing technical abilities within his films (cinematography and editing are fantastic and razor sharp) along with an acute awareness of space (the house is as much a character as any of the family within the film, as are the surrounding mountainous areas) – and this is even before we meet the family. As sharp as the script for The Quiet Family is (and it’s tightly plotted and evenly filled with all sorts of ironic, clever and even not-so clever humour) it’s the casting that really compliments everything that has been done right behind the camera. Alongside Go Ho-kyung, the rest of the family consist of Park In-hwan and Na Mun-hee as Mr and Mrs Kang, Lee Yun-seong as the eldest daughter Mi-su, Song Kang-ho as their older brother Yeong-min and Choi Min-sik as bumbling uncle Chang-ku. That’s one hell of a cast right there.

Alongside the dark story (of which I won’t go into details because part of the fun of The Quiet Family is the twists and turns that fall upon this unlucky lot), there’s a lot of laughs. If dead bodies and family tension don’t sound like a comedy goldmine, then it highlights how well the script is constructed that there’s always something funny about what is happening, even while it may be simultaneously threatening or nasty. All too many of these types of films struggle with the comedy / horror balance and often fall into the pit of trying to push the horror at the expense of the comedy for the second half of the film in order to reach a conclusion. The Quiet Family makes none of these mistakes and actually manages to push the comedy quota as the plot gets murkier and murkier.

Song Kang-ho (looking very young, yet this was made just two years before his authoritative performance in the amazing J.S.A.) gets some excellent, and the most slapstick, of the comedy scenes – not to mention a fight scene that, well, could go better for him. Alongside him is Choi Min-sik who gets to play a slightly simple and bumbling uncle (Oldboy (Park Chan-wook, 2003) this is not!) and the two provide the broadest comedy for the film – and manage to get pretty broad – but never feel like they may topple it over into the plain daft. Kim Jee-woon somehow manages to play the rest of the cast and plot pretty straight as the more bizarre the comedy elements evolve with the increasingly dark plot structure is. With several sub-plots working together The Quiet Family is never too clever but instead keeps on pushing and nudging its way towards an inevitable conclusion. What this conclusion is likely to be is never clear until we finally get there  and although it seems to be a bone of contention for some viewers it absolutely fits with the rest of the film.

While Song Kang-ho and Choi Min-sik get some of the wider comedy in the film, its fairly safe to say that at the core of the piece it’s Park In-hwan and Na Mun-hee as the mother and father of the family that anchor the story. Increasingly willing to do whatever is necessary to keep the family together and make a success of their business, they both play the whole thing completely straight – and Na Mun-hee in particular gets to wring some poignant laughs out of the increasingly uncomfortable situation..

The rest of the cast – Go Ho-kyung and Lee Yun-seong as the argumentative sisters are strong although get less to do than everyone else, and there’s an enjoyable appearance from Jeong Woong-in who plays a visiting developer who stays at the lodge and shows more than a casual interest in Mi-su.

If there’s any complaints directed toward The Quiet Family, they can only be that the clever plot, comedy and drama do not allow for too much in the way of characterisation. The family largely remains the same even as all sorts of bad luck falls on them. While the intention may be to show the bond of this family unit in the face of large obstacles (but who argue over the small things) individually they’re underdeveloped, almost as if they’re unaware of the bigger picture. This is referenced at least once – Yeong-min is congratulated in his speed of digging holes – but a little more would have been welcome. Still, this is a small criticism in what never aspires to be a character piece but an ensemble black comedy.

It won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but The Quiet Family really is a minor classic. Mixing laugh out loud moments with a very dark plot, it’s slick and surprisingly involving with great performances from its cast who make the most of its beautifully crafted script.

조용한 가족 (The Quiet Family)
Directed by Kim Jee-woon
Produced by Lee Eun
Written by Kim Jee-woon
Starring Go Ho-kyung, Park In-hwan, Na Mun-hee, Lee Yun-seong, Song Kang-ho, Choi Min-sik

The Quiet Family Image © Myung Films