It's the third in Anh Hung Tran's "Vietnam trilogy". He's a French director who's Vietnamese by birth, but whose family emigrated after the fall of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. I don't think I can describe his film better than he does, in these quotes from an interview with The Independent:
"I wanted my film to feel like a caress. It had to have a gentle smile floating through it, a sort of floating feeling." He wanted to find a style "which didn't present the drama as a series of emotional problems for the various couples." The following memories were something like the feeling he wanted to evoke. "My thoughts turned back to my childhood in DaNang, remembering the time when I'd be waiting to fall asleep at night, my mind racing from one thing to another, nothing precise. The smell of fruit coming in through the window, a woman's voice singing on the radio. Everything was so vague. It was like a feeling of suspension. If I've ever experienced harmony in my life it was then. It was just a matter of translating that rhythm and that musicality into the new film."
Personally I'd say he achieved this. Nothing really happens in this film. In one sense this feels very French, since for two pointless hours we're merely following the pointless love lives of a small, charming group of very middle-class people. One of the characters says he's an actor who's appeared in 17 films, but always in tiny roles. Another is finishing his first novel. It's all very civilised, the women are beautiful and it's the kind of film in which you could go to sleep for half an hour and not notice.
I sort of liked it, though. It captures what I just quoted Anh Hung Tran talking about.
Firstly, the sex side of things is being played down. We begin and end with ceremonies to commemorate the deceased father and mother of the family. The most important relationship is that between the three sisters of the family and they're always honest and fun to be with. They're free of angst. They'll have their problems and there will be marital infidelities, but somehow to me these felt like embroidery at the movie's edges. This is basically a happy film.
Another downplaying of sex involves the youngest sister, played by Tran's real-life wife (Nu Yen-Khe Tran) who's acted in four of his five films. (The exception is Norwegian Snow, because it's in Japanese.) Anyway, Nu Yen-Khe lives with her twin brother (Ngo Quang Hai), regularly climbs into his bed and enjoys playing with the idea that they're a couple. This isn't incest. You might find yourself waiting to see if the film's going to take a wild shift of tone and go there, but the relationship between the two of them is in some ways as if they were still children. Hai treats his sister's sleeping habits as a matter of no importance, except when he gets pushed out of bed on to the floor. One of the most memorable things about their scenes together is the music playing over them. I found this charming. It's sweet to see this relationship between these two likeable, good-looking people who are more intimate than many lovers, but regarding whom it feels almost childish to be wondering about sex.
This isn't an exciting film. It doesn't resolve its characters' problems, but that's not important. Instead it's more interested in letting me spend nearly two gentle, civilised hours in Vietnam.
As for Anh Hung Tran, I'm now tempted to watch his other films. These are:
- 1. The Scent of Green Papaya (1993, Vietnam) - Oscar-nominated for Best Foreign Film
- 2. Cyclo (1995, Vietnam) - gangs and prostitution
- 3. Vertical Ray of the Sun (2000, Vietnam)
- 4. I Come With The Rain (so far his only English-language film, set in Los Angeles, Mindanao and Hong Kong, 2008) - in the interview I read, he was unhappy with this one
- 5. Norwegian Wood (2010, Japan)
This isn't a film you'd recommend too forcefully. It's aimed at a particular kind of audience, but on the upside it's good enough not to come across as crawlingly slow or obsessed with its navel. It's watchable by ordinary people, not just the hardcore art-house crowd. It's confident and calm. It makes Vietnam (and Vietnamese women) look beautiful. It's the kind of film to make you nostalgic for somewhere you've never been.
Its title can also be translated as "At the Height of Summer", incidentally, if you want to sacrifice poetry for clarity.