Families are façades: that is the idea that animates Netflix’s newest crime thriller A Model Family, which over the course of its 10-episode order twists and turns through domestic drama and organised crime to thoroughly draw out the implications of its enigmatic title.
Our family man is the seemingly respectable Park Dong-ha (Jung Woo), who’s married with two kids and a steady job as a university professor. But he’s been saddled with immense debt, a divorce on the horizon and a terminally ill child. Dong-ha is backed into a corner – until he stumbles upon an idle car parked in the middle of his usual route home from work. The scene in the vehicle is brutal: Two men lay lay motionless and bloodied, but the contents of the backseat pique Dong-ha’s interest: two bags filled to the brim with cash.
Frantic and desperate, Dong-ha scrambles to pocket the money, before driving home with both bodies in tow and burying them in his own backyard. As it turns out, the money belonged to underground drug cartels, the Yongsoo and Sangseon Drug Rings. Ma Kwang-chul (Park Hee-soon), the notorious second-in-command of the syndicates – who they refer to as “family” to foster emotional manipulation – begins to investigate the missing cash, with his efforts eventually leading to Dong-ha’s residence.
With jaded detective Joo-hyun (Yoon Jin-seo) hot on Kwang-chul’s heels, Dong-ha is recruited against his will as the “perfect mule”, as Kwang-chul puts it – who would ever suspect a model citizen with a nuclear family and upright profession? He could never betray them either, not with his wife and kids in the line of fire. Thus begins the chase: Dong-ha in his pursuit of protection for his family, Kwang-chul in his mission to prove his worth to his fellow ringleaders and detective Joo-hyun of her goal to take down these drug cartels once and for all.
A Model Family is one of the better executed thriller Korean series in recent memory. Expert writing is evident allows the show’s unfolding events to explore its motif of a family unit – from Dong-ha’s attempts to save himself from bankruptcy to his bid to protect his family from the tendrils of the syndicate, A Model Family challenges the notion of a family, whether bonded by blood or choice. In the face of dire circumstances, Dong-ha’s fractured family is forced to reconnect and reignite their relationships with each other – the way this growth is paced on the show feels seamless and natural.
The performances of the cast, specifically Jung Woo and Park Hee-soon in their respective lead roles, elevate the series’ tensions and suspense. Though they are some of South Korea’s most popular movie stars, both actors disappear into their characters with serious ease. Park’s Kwang-chul is unsparing and unnerving – there is little to stop him from achieving his goal of heading the cartel. Jung Woo’s Dong-ha, on the other hand, is sympathetic and complex – all he wants is the best for his family, his string of bad decisions all communicating this desperate need despite his eventual (involuntary) involvement in crime. His deep-seated fear and distress over his increasingly prickly circumstances is palpable in Jung’s execution of the character.
A Model Family does bear an uncanny similarity to another hit Netflix series: Ozark. Both have a nearly identical premise: a man with a wife and two kids gets involved in a money-laundering scheme gone wrong, and ends up having to pay off a substantial debt to a crime lord to keep his family safe. So while the plot’s not totally original, A Model Family is still well worth the watch. All 10 episodes have the recipe for success – with compelling characters, a good pace and slick editing, A Model Family may very well be one of the best Korean crime thrillers 2022 has to offer.
All episodes of A Model Family are now available to stream on Netflix.