Vietnam, Singapore, France, Spain, 2022
Directed by Pham Thien An
With Le Phong Vu (Thien), Nguyen Thinh (Dao), Vu Ngoc Manh (Trung), Nguyen Thi Truc Quynh (Thao)
The film has no title sequence and brings the audience in the heat of the action, a soccer match by night. It is shot in a wide shot from behind the goalposts and while a couple of players standing behind the net are chatting attention is inevitably caught by the tall, funny rabbit standing on the left, the kind of advertising disguise to sell stuff and allowing someone to make money. And indeed, the guy stops looking at the players and starts walking toward the right, wielding his merchandise. The camera follows him: his walk has started a smooth and long sideways tracking shot, revealing slowly the whole place, a fan zone where folks can watch the matches of the 2018 World Cup and chat. And indeed, the camera stops sliding at one point to capture, in the same kind of wide shot, three friends having a beer and a serious talk. But a deafening and frightening noise cuts short the conversation and causes a commotion – but it also causes the camera to pick up its previously smooth sideways tracking towards the right. What comes into sight now is a street and badly damaged scooters with bodies lying motionless while a thunderstorm pours rain on the scene.
Nothing is known about the film and the plot, but the audience have been drawn in a brilliantly crafted, intriguing, fascinating movement. And they have found out a lot in fact on the agenda and style of “Ben trong vo ken vang – Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell”.
Sideways tracking shots and pans are essential elements of this debut feature’s syntax, completed by fewer but elaborate tracking in shots. Since this is Vietnam, a nod to the artistic visual tradition of the old Chinese culture can be inferred: the events unfold just like the representation reveals itself as the watcher unfolds the scroll where the painting has been made. What is revealed in those takes that take quite a long time to emerge, an unhurried pace as striking, riveting (or perhaps to some annoying) as the quietness of behaviors and the stillness of the atmosphere. It looks conspicuously like the well-known tropes of what is called the slow cinema. As delicately composed shots line up over the nearly three hours of the film, quotes from very specific and distinguished directors can be detected, from Andrei Tarkovsky to Apichatpong Weerasethakul, from Theodoros Angelopoulos to Tsai Ming-liang.
But these sources of inspiration and references are used to develop a deeply personal and unconventional film by director Pham Thien An. At the beginning, it is an astonishingly bold and clever way to introduce the plot’s key elements, letting them surface in the stream of life, the pulse of the street, briefly, unexpectedly, before in the next scenes emphasizing how they are shaping his film. One of the three friends chatting while the rabbit and later a pretty girl were trying to sell them stuff proves to be the true lead character. Thien then turns out to be the uncle of the kid who was among those thrown on the asphalt when the scooters collided. Dao is alive and a bit shocked but his mother has died. Thien is then compelled to look after the toddler and to organize the funeral of his sister-in-law, which implies to travel back to the town where his family and hers hail from, Di Linh, far north of Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City where the action has taken place.
A simple, sudden cut shifts the film from the busy, throbbing, crowded streets and places of Saigon to the verdant, towering, fog-shrouded, magic mountains of the Di Linh region. And such brutal editing moves, the sideways tracking shots, the pans would capture and shape the long journey of Thien as it expands beyond the sad ceremony and the mourning process, under the roof and care of his brother-in-law Trung, to morph into a complex, multidimensional exploration. Thien, always on the move and stumbling clumsily from one transient moment to another (this is that physical, with Trung’s scooter he has borrowed to ride crawling in the mud or swerving in endless turn, the young man himself at one point trudging in the pouring rain), ends up dragged into the lush and meandering known world he has left, his past, and his soul, stirred by the sudden need to find out what has happened to Tam, his brother and the husband of his late relative, that is, until he decided one day to walk out of his home, never giving an explanation and then never giving tidings. Mourning has in fact opened the gates to a soul-searching quest, a troubling and supernatural experience.
But the audience of “Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell” has already been warned: what made the conversation between Thien and his two pals so serious is the decision by one of them to sell everything and go to a mountain for a spiritual retreat. The other friend is shocked and views this choice as an egregious mistake. Thien is more non-committal, saying: “The existence of faith is ambiguous”. Maybe: but the main topic of the film is clearly articulated and so is the radical challenge to Thien’s quiet, modern, indifferent ways a tragedy and an evolving journey would be.
To Dao’s delight Thien is a gifted magician. Luckily for it, Thien is thoughtful, tender, kind enough to pick up a young sparrow in the street and to feed it and protect it. Respectful of tradition and community, he attends fervently the Catholic and popular rites back home to bury his sister-in-law and to grieve. Still, there is indeed ambiguity: Thien very much belongs to the modern and seedy ways of 21st century Saigon, making a living editing wedding videos and going to saunas where massages are performed by cute and raunchy girls, barely caring for spirituality or worrying about his relatives it seems, unconcerned too for his country, even as it is showed he is so able to relate easily to a far less materialistic, individualist, sensual blunt world.
The odd, meandering journey he will take would shift his narrative arc from that ambiguity to another. At the end of one of those wonderful sideways tracking shots, as he listens an old man of the native town who weaves shrouds for the dead and slowly gets interested and fascinated by the veteran’s relations of fights and a hard life, he is playfully pictured as a doubting Thomas, the shot composition echoing a famous 1602 painting by il Caravaggio. But the more he hands around and thinks of Tam the more he feels troubled. And the chance encounter with the girl he loved, Thao, would shake him further. The pretty young woman did not wait for him to come back wealthy and secure from Saigon: she took the veil and is now a teacher in a Catholic school. Thien would not seek to influence her and trusts Dao to her: he is now obsessed with finding Tam and the roads he would take would lead him to even more astonishing encounters, with an old woman quoting Mark (“For what profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world and lose his soul”) or a magical tree attracting gorgeous golden butterflies.
Dreams segue into the tapestry of sensations and emotions making up the reality of his journey – how could be forgotten this long take in the fog, a tracking in shot taken from the riding scooter, a most hypnotic scene where time looks suspended even as life carries on – and Thien’s past (the last talk with Thao before he departs, in the ruins of a building under a summer rain) and fantasies (a possible conversation with the hypothetical second wife of Tam, as many in the region have speculated he just switched from one love affair to another while Thien has always thought he retreated to the mountain for his spiritual needs). The journey would end in a suspended state of stillness, after a dream, in a river, under the sun, leading to a final abrupt cut denying the audience a clear outcome.
The elaborate and distinctive camerawork has constantly widened the perspective to capture what the soul and the mind of Thien go through. Always shifting under the camera’s eye, space takes up a more complex dimension, and the stream of life which is ordinary framed is doubled by a stream of consciousness where Thien becomes more attuned to his own doubts, yearnings, spiritual needs. The final ambiguity does not really concern what he is but what he is ready to be, and this is no longer about him but rather about us: he may be born again, or not, he may find his brother, or not, whatever the future holds is left unseen, leaving the audience compelled to imagine and thus to grapple with their own doubts and views on faith.
Faith is a tricky and treacherous topic of conversation, and it is always bold from an artist to explore it. It gets here even remarkable, in current-day Vietnam, where the population is strikingly young, where a wild, but under surveillance, capitalism manufactures relentlessly more riches and inequity, and where an old-fashioned Communist Party still rules, with little tolerance for dissent and worshiping its anti-colonial past. Moreover, Pham has chosen to make his characters member of the tiny Catholic minority, always torn by essence between the demands of the communist state and the allegiance to Rome. Politics, however, are barely discussed, though a lack of enthusiasm for the current state of affairs is perceptible (after all, the national flag comes into sight only once and it is the big city is rather called Saigon instead of Ho Chi Minh City). The past, through the figure of the veteran making shrouds, is not ignored but rather used as a starting point for a deeper questioning. It is the present and the soul that are the film’s main concerns, and Pham delivers a stunning, delightful visual experience taking Thien and the audience well beyond the usual frames of cinematic storytelling and right into the power of cinema to knock down walls and capture what lies beyond rationality, materialism, the ordinary and the mundane, to reveal ourselves further and deeper.