Kim Ji-Woon’s debut The Quiet Family is a hilarious yet twisted tale that follows the events of the extended Chang family. Having recently moved from the city to the mountains, they have opened a guest-house which has seen absolutely no business since they arrived.
The set-up is immediately one of classic comedy with the family comprising of a set of Marx Brothers-esque stock characters: fussing middle-aged parents Jeong Soon-Ryae and De-goo, funny uncle Chang-Goo, delinquent sex-obsessed brother Young-Min and vain and flirtatious sister Mi-Soo. Our protagonist, if there is one at all, is Mi-na, who sums up the situation when she says ‘We’ve been here for thirteen days, and still nothing has happened’. She, along with the rest of the characters, is bored of the countryside, fed up with the sole company of other family members and beginning to go slightly stir-crazy. Luckily for her their first customer, a lone hiker, finally arrives, and so the narrative begins.
Some family members are suspicious of their guest, and brand him a weirdo. After a certain amount of spying and speculation, he is left to sleep in his room, only to be found dead and covered in blood the next morning. Following a state of panic, Dae-Goo decides that the best way forward would be to dispose of the body, and keep quiet about the event altogether.
This seems to work at first, and the next guests (a young couple) are oblivious. The next morning, though, they too have died, seemingly of some kind of poisoning. There seems to be no other option but to bury them as well.
The plot thickens and progresses, and the quiet family get deeper and deeper into a terrible downward spiral of death and deceit. A mix-up with a hit-man and undercover cop, Mi-Soo’s run-in with a lecherous older guest, and the taking captive of a local guest add intriguing twists to the storyline. At first, this is side-splitting and exhilarating for the audience.
The contrast between the family’s emphasis on politeness and customer service and their blasé attitude to disposing of bodies and everyday use of spades and black bags is very funny and very black. Sitting down to family meals is a repeated motif, used as a vehicle for comedy and discomfort.
As more visitors appear and the situation complicates, the humour becomes increasingly slapstick and farcical. After a while it loses its sparkle, and it begins to feel like we are being told the same joke over and over again, although physical comedy fans will be in their element.
After this lag in the middle though, the film regains its momentum, and the final part, which includes the parents’ near-death experience in a fire ensures a barmy and eccentric finale.
The standard of acting is great, with a varying range of characterisation in terms of funny / straight. It’s interesting to see a pre-Oldboy (2003) Choi Min-Sik already shining. My favourite performance was Go Ho Kyung as Mi-Na. Although most reviews and synopses clearly acknowledge the first death as a ‘suicide’ (as the characters do in the film), Mi-na’s look into the camera at the end has left me wondering how much influence she (or any of the other characters) had on creating the messy, murderous situation that culminated. Touches like this are also an early indication of the brilliance of Kim’s direction.
The film’s other real success was the dark visual beauty and stylistic mise-en-scene in every single shot, seemingly harking back to horror classics like Psycho (1960) and The Shining (1980). This gorgeousness develops even further in Kim’s later work A Tale of Two Sisters (2003).
Those looking for genuine frights or psychological scares should go elsewhere, as The Quiet Family is definitely more ‘comedy’ than ‘horror’. This comedy is dark and in bad taste, though, and this makes for a fun and demented thrill ride. Anyone who enjoyed A Tale of two Sisters or The Good, the Bad, the Weird (2008) should definitely look back to Kim’s beginnings in The Quiet Famiy– it won’t disappoint!