It's the feature debut of Anh Hung Tran, the French-Vietnamese director. It was Oscar-nominated for Best Foreign Language Film and it ended up being the first in his Vietnam trilogy, with the other two being Cyclo
and The Vertical Ray of the Sun
I quite enjoyed The Vertical Ray of the Sun
, but you wouldn't call it eventful. Nothing happens in it. However it's beautiful to look at and mildly hypnotic in a soothing way, like a long warm bath. That's true of this film too, but fortunately Cyclo
has gangs and prostitutes in it, so it should be livelier.
The main character is a female servant (Mui) who's played by Man San Lu in 1951 and by Tran Nu Yen-Khe in 1961. Halfway through, the film has a "ten years later" caption and suddenly Mui's grown up and beautiful. (Incidentally Tran Nu Yen-Khe is Anh Hung Tran's wife and has starred in all his films except Norwegian Wood
.) You couldn't exactly call Mui the protagonist, though. She's passive. She hardly even gets any dialogue. She just drifts through the film doing her job and otherwise hardly making a ripple on the world around her, never in any way hurting her masters or even really interacting with them. She enjoys the little things. She loves nature and will take pleasure in watching the industry of ants, or in caring for her pet beetle. I've seen one reviewer liken her to Buddha himself and this is actually a striking comparison.
In 1951, when she's ten, she's employed by a middle-class family who seem nice enough at first. Life's pleasant and civilised there, but the family has issues. Grandfather died when his son (Ngoc Trung Tran) was born, whereupon grandma (Thi Hai Vo) turned into a bit of a Miss Havisham and now never leaves the attic. Apparently she hasn't come downstairs for seven years. For the most part she's inoffensive enough, but when that aforementioned son takes all his family's money and runs off with a floozy (again) she blames the wife (Thi Loc Truong). Meanwhile the family also has two young sons, one of whom tortures ants with molten wax and the other of whom I wanted to see receive a good punch in the face. He gets into fights and loves tormenting Mui.
However these people could never be called evil. You'll sympathise with them all. The two boys are acting up because they're upset about their father, who in turn has his own traumas as a result of the loss of a daughter. Mui has a pretty good life there and she seems happy as she plays her part in keeping everyone clean and fed.
A bit of plot develops in the second half, but the dialogue level drops yet further as we meet a man who makes Mui seem like a chatterbox. He's a pianist who seems to live by the same principles as Mui herself, in that he lives his life without fuss. His silence isn't to make a point. He's simply a man who moves through the world without trying to do anything to it, just getting on with being himself and with playing beautiful music.
You'll have realised by now that this is not a plot-driven movie. It has a smattering, but its most interesting characters are defined by the fact that they're not driven by their desires. This is the opposite of how drama normally works. Characters want something, but must overcome obstacles. That's the formula. Everything normally conforms to it, be it Luke trying to blow up the Death Star, Frankenstein wanting to create life or Hamlet wanting revenge on Claudius for the murder of his father. Here though we have characters who simply exist, never denying their humanity but still living their lives in accordance with the Buddhist Middle Way.
It's a beautiful film. It's like a painting, taking pleasure in the world exactly as Mui does. Astonishingly though it was shot on a soundstage in Boulogne, France. Not a single frame was shot in Vietnam, which is remarkable because the film doesn't feel stage-bound and even has exterior scenes. The sunlight has the right sub-tropical quality and the illusion is so perfect that even if you know about it in advance, you'll soon stop being impressed because you'll have forgotten that you're not really in Vietnam.
Would I recommend this movie? If you're in the right mood, certainly, but be warned. It's not just that it'll bore anyone who's looking for action, but in addition it's so subtle and languid that if you're not paying attention, you might fail to realise what's happened in the last act. There's no dialogue to underline it. People simply do, and are. You'll probably find yourself enjoying the film more on a rewatch, as you can see better what's happening and appreciate the film almost like music rather than a dramatic piece. Similarly it took me a long time to realise that Mui's the main character. I couldn't pretend that I loved this film, since it is after all slow and arty, but I found it beautiful and restful in a way movies usually aren't. It's warm and human, with even the viler of the two little boys at one point making me laugh.
It's elegantly dull, but I also think it deserved its awards and accolades.