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Wednesday, July 18, 2001
A love affair with languor
Tran Anh Hung is a director who effortlessly defies categorization. While his films -- "The Scent of Green Papaya" and "Cyclo" -- are invariably described as Vietnamese, it's a Vietnam filtered through the sensibility of European art cinema. But, completing the loop, his cinematic style is obviously infused with an intensely Asian aesthetic in every aspect, in his use of color, sound, design and pace.
Tran -- Vietnamese by birth, but raised in France from the age of 12 -- walks that line between two cultures and offers us a singular perspective; he rediscovers his homeland with every film, close enough to it to be alert to the minutest details, but distanced enough to take a hazy, impressionistic and highly personal view.
Where "Papaya" was a tranquil memory of childhood wonder in prewar Saigon (painstakingly re-created on a French soundstage) and "Cyclo" a harsh and hallucinatory nightmare of urban despair in present-day Saigon, Tran's latest, "a la verticale de l'ete (The Vertical Ray of the Sun)," is an afternoon daydream on the torpid allure of Hanoi. After the chaos of shooting "Cyclo" in bustling Saigon, Tran took a holiday break in Hanoi, where, he says, he found himself "attracted to the unique, laid-back flow of time." This mellow pace, combined with childhood memories of sweltering summer siestas, gave birth to "a la verticale."
There's only one word to describe Tran's latest: languid. Take the opening scene: a torporific apartment in Hanoi, draped with mosquito nets and bathed in warm yellow light. A couple slowly crawls out of bed, not so much greeting the new day as easing into it. She practices some tai chi while he lights a cigarette. The sound of insects lightly permeates the background, and The Velvet Underground's "Pale Blue Eyes" plays on the stereo, appropriating the sound of the heroin nod for a humid morning's languor.
Overall, there's a narcotic feeling of calm and stillness that's common to all of Tran's films. But while the director considers his first two works as almost silent movies, at a Tokyo press conference he described this one as his first "talkie."
"But," the director explained, "in making a film with dialogue, I became even more aware of the need for moments without words, of silence. I felt not so much like making a movie with lots of words and no silence, but to make a movie where the words would arise out of silence. The dialogue, for me, was like a melody, like music."
Tran is obviously attuned to the daily rhythms of life in Hanoi, with a fondness for the details of everyday routines: eating, sleeping, bathing, smoking, lolling. But while the heart of his films lies in such simple quotidian experience, he approaches this in a decidedly nonrealist, stylized way, using deep greens, warm yellows and opalescent blues to suggest the intensity of memory.
Tran is a master of seductive ambience, of creating worlds that beckon you with their beauty. He uses sunlight and shadow to sculpt each shot with a painter's attention to composition, and he can make water droplets running over a woman's long ebony hair about the most sensual thing you've ever seen. But Tran's true interest in ambience lies in the intersection between the mood of a place and time and the mood of the people in it, how our feelings put a tint on our surroundings.
With "a la verticale," Tran addresses that very Asian issue -- harmony -- and how to maintain it by keeping up appearances, masking one's troubles and transgressions. Three sisters meet on the anniversary of their mother's death; while the young women seem to be happy and open with each other, they all leave much unsaid, ranging from suspicions that their mother had an affair to their own romantic entanglements.
Eldest sister Suong (Nguyen Nhu Quynh) owns a cafe where youngest sister Lien (Tran's regular leading lady, Tran Nu Yen-Khe) also works. Suong is troubled by her photographer husband's repeated absences, while Lien is halfheartedly looking for a boyfriend while harboring some overly affectionate feelings for her brother Hai (Ngo Quang Hai), with whom she shares an apartment. Middle sister Khanh (Le Khanh) seems to have the perfect marriage to writer Kien (Tran Manh Cuong), but as routine sets in, his eyes begin to wander . . .
Tran is distinctly nonjudgmental when it comes to such affairs, saying only, "From my point of view, I couldn't judge my characters' actions. Nor was it necessary to resolve each of their problems. I just wanted to show that's how life is, these problems arise, and you've got to go on living. In Vietnam, there's this cultural background of Confucianism, and how they handle such problems is totally different from other countries. Acknowledging the problem while maintaining harmony is the Vietnamese esprit. Tran sees this as a mature way of dealing with misfortune, a way of maintaining one's dreams, a deliberate naivete: "In the film, the eldest daughter senses that there may have been something between their mother and her first love, but she tries to stop the discussion of it, to keep it sealed. She only wants to keep the good memories of her mother."
Tran himself is happily married to Yen Khe, who has appeared in all his films so far. Casting your wife/lover as your lead is always a dangerous proposition, but Tran is one of the few directors for whom it seems like the smartest thing in the world. Yen Khe, other than being one of the most natural beauties in cinema today, has a reserved, magnetic style that perfectly suits the director's material. There are plenty of reasons to make a movie, and sharing your sheer awestruck fascination with the beauty -- both spiritual and physical -- of your muse is as good a reason as any. Tran's affection for her infuses every shot.
"a la verticale" is an ode to lazy mornings and bittersweet longings that will leave you ready to drop the Tokyo grind and take the next flight to Hanoi. Tran unabashedly immerses himself in the particulars of people and places he loves, and, like all the best directors, is able to make the viewer love them too.