You may not have heard of the 2019 crime drama “A Sun,” the fifth fiction feature from acclaimed Taiwanese director and cinematographer Chung Mong-hong. (His 2008 debut, “Parking,” premiered at Cannes in Un Certain Regard.) You almost certainly haven’t seen it; after screening at festivals including Toronto 2019 and Palm Springs 2020, it arrived on Netflix in January without fanfare. After Variety named it the best film of 2020, it’s getting a lot more attention — but this film’s happy ending is also a cautionary tale.
This is what really sets “A Sun” apart: Not only had this film escaped the public’s eye, it eluded critics’ as well. “A Sun” has nine reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, and none on Metacritic. Full disclosure: The unaware included IndieWire. Critic David Ehrlich acknowledged that the Variety selection was the first time the film landed on his radar, but after viewing it he agreed that this film demands serious Oscar consideration. “Movies have never been more accessible,” Ehrlich wrote, “and they’ve never been harder to find.”
Welcome to 2021, where a theatrical release is neither required for review, nor should it be treated as the sole arbiter of quality. Steve McQueen’s five “Small Axe” films (Amazon), “American Utopia” (HBO Max), and “Soul” (Disney+) are among the best reviewed of the year. Understanding how everyone overlooked “A Sun” — and how that can be prevented in the future — requires some forensic work.
The Mandarin-language “A Sun” had its world premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival as one of 55 titles in the Contemporary World Cinema section. Toronto gets most of its energy from awards-oriented selections, star appearances, and studio premieres, with limited bandwidth for smaller films. At 156 minutes, from a country without no real profile at the U.S. box office (Ang Lee’s “Eat Drink Man Woman” received an Oscar nomination for best foreign-language film in 1995, with his “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” an Oscar winner and a blockbuster in 2000), “A Sun” didn’t surface against higher-profile films in the TIFF section like “Bacurau,” “Beanpole,” and “Les Misérables.”
Variety and the Hollywood Reporter didn’t cover the film out of TIFF, but published favorable reviews after its October premiere at the Tokyo Film Festival. “A Sun” went on to a November 2019 theatrical release in Taiwan, and won most of the top prizes at the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival and Awards. Stateside theatrical distributors showed little interest. Around that time, Netflix acquired the rights.
In a pre-pandemic January, critics paid far less attention to non-theatrical releases. When “A Sun” debuted on Netflix January 24 — also known as day two of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, guaranteed to distract every film critic in North America — it largely escaped the notice of the streamer’s 60 million domestic subscribers.
“A Sun” now has its place, but this is more than a single film slipping through the cracks. Theatrical distribution used to be the all-powerful curatorial tool, but it’s now mired in existential crisis as we edge toward a streaming-first world. That leaves everyone — critics as well as the audience — faced with the tyranny of thumbnails: Hundreds of thousands of key-art rectangles representing choices that stretch into infinity. Who’s got the marketing moxie to cope with that?
In a healthier world, Netflix has theaters in New York and Los Angeles where it could showcase awards-favorite titles. Even so, this one might not clear the mark; it’s an acquisition, not an original, and it’s Taiwan’s submission for the 2021 International Oscar competition.
More feasible: Netflix could curate a section of top festival films. As it stands, it takes absurd controversy to elevate these (see: the Cannes-premiered “Cuties”). Designate a weekday for their debuts. Netflix has so many of these titles; the failure to effectively aggregate them is a missed opportunity for low-cost, high-impact promotion. The media would love a Netflix Classics or similar, with two or three titles a week isolated from the clutter.
In their sheer volume, movies are becoming more like books. The New York Times only reviews a handful of books during the week, with Sunday’s standalone New York Times Book Review dedicated to them. Could outlets create a dedicated space to identify films like “A Sun”? These are films with a limited audience, but it’s a loyal and intensely interested one.
In the meantime, do check out “A Sun” on Netflix. It makes my own 10 best list.