Updated: Sep 10
It's not the Korean Breaking Bad or Ozark, but Netflix's A Model Family is a passable take on the litany of very bad — yet very human — decisions we are wont to make in desperate times.
A broke professor (Jung Woo) finds a bag of cash in a car where two men have been killed. His instinct, of course, is to take the cash, dump the bodies, and hopefully live quietly without anyone knowing any better. What he doesn’t realize is he’s just stolen from one of the biggest drug cartels in the region, and pretty soon he is tracked down by the bag’s owner. But instead of being executed, the hapless professor is forced to act as a drug courier and live under the mercies of an ambitious gangster.
To make matters worse, the gang has now taken over the house next door so it can monitor the professor’s every move. But the gangs also don’t know that the police have also set up shop nearby. In the midst of this darkly comic crossfire, the professor grows increasingly desperate, and troubles brewing in his own home aren't making matters any better.
We instinctively know noir when we see it. Noir is a wild night, a gun, a drunken man, and a half-naked girl. Noir is this couple running for their lives in a stolen car, being pursued by a man high on cocaine and bleeding from a bullet wound on his right side. Noir is also the dirty bag of money — there’s always a bag of money — and along with it comes a wretched history of guilt, murder, and all the horrible consequences in the world. A Model Family takes this bloodstained cinematic style, spreads it out across 10 episodes, and makes for an interesting — albeit tonally inconsistent — odd family melodrama.
Much like Ozark, A Model Family explores the possibilities of soaking the ordinary in the bloody vat of noir. It sets the drama right smack in the middle of prosaic, suburban, middle-class Korea, the last place you expect anything this hideous to happen. The show starts on a dark note, then keeps its foot on the accelerator when it dives straight into the genre’s demands for drugs, murder, gunshot wounds, and a lot of very bad decisions. While the show does lack gratuitous sex (although there's a pretty wild one in the middle), it makes up for it by shifting your focus to the closing trap and how the professor wriggles helplessly in its midst.
A Model Family stands out in its visually arresting take on noir, a genre that is most at home in the seedy nightclubs and dank locations of the underworld. In fact, the drama is so well-lit for a story that usually begs for settings that are dark and dangerous. Stunning shots abound in this drama, from the dazzling sunset scenes across placid fish ponds to a dream scene where the professor watches his house burn to the ground.
Notable too is the director’s use of negative space and silence. Unlike other violent k-dramas that prefer crowded shots and bombastic sequences, A Model Family is oddly peaceful and even Zen-like for its genre. The photography is sharp and clean, and the scenes are pleasantly — even obsessively — symmetrical. There is more silence in this k-drama than there is dialogue or gunfire, and the formula works perfectly to push the tension, and sometimes offer a quick respite to the stress inflicted on our protagonist.
Jung Woo as the hapless, bumbling professor Park Dong-ha is a joy to watch, and so is Park Hee-son who really should lead a gangster movie by now. Both are clearly making their mark in Netflix productions, with Jung Woo last seen as the fantastic rage-filled cop in the k-drama Mad for Each Other (2021) and Park Hee-son as the gang leader in My Name (2021).
As the professor, Jung Woo is both endearingly and annoyingly naïve, bumbling everything from googling “how to launder money” to teaching his class even when he’s about to fall apart. He’s embodied the luckless everyday man and stands out precisely because of his ordinariness. Park Hae-soo as the ambitious drug runner Ma Gwang-cheol is also stoic perfection, down to the cold and emotionless eyes and stance. With so many players closing in on both of them and so many plans going awry in each episode, one gets a treat of not knowing where the story will turn or who will make the next bad decision.
A Model Family is where the suburban and the slaughter comfortably coexist, and the director must be lauded for making such stylish noir accessible to a k-drama audience. Overall, the drama is a modest burn that comfortably casts aside any pedestrian sense of morality and clear goodheartedness. It's not exactly the Korean Breaking Bad or Ozark, but it is a passable take on the litany of very bad — yet very human — decisions we are wont to make in desperate times.
Stream if: You are interested in this take on noir. Jim Harrisson, the author of Legends of the Fall, once told an interviewer: "I like grit, I like love and death, I'm tired of irony." If you agree with him, then this show might be for you.
Skip if: Drug cartels and violence are not your thing.