Tuesday, January 09, 2024

283. The Vietnamese director Thien An Pham’s debut feature film “Ben trong vo ken vang“ (Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell) (2023), based on his original screenplay: Searching for faith and meaning in life, following a recent personal tragedy





“Faith is what I am searching for --answers the film’s main character, Thien, to his toddler nephew’s question, on what is faith, soon after his dead mother is described publicly as someone who had strong faith  
Would you give your favorite toys to your friend and did you think he would to return them to you?” Thien asks his nephew  
He will return them to me because he is good,” answers the nephew  
Faith is a little bit like that,” Thien explains to his nephew

Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell is nearly 3-hours long, bereft of sex, violence, or crime. Further, it is slow-moving, philosophical, magical (literally and metaphorically) and charming--aspects missing in most contemporary American and British films. You don’t see fast cars in this Vietnamese film; instead you see mopeds that often breakdown, traversing dirt tracks more often than on proper paved roads. Much of what you see in the film is rural contemporary Vietnam with birds, animals and human beings sharing space and time. Cocks crow before dawn and humans wake early to trap wild, well-fed cocks that fight for fresh territory with others. This is not a film that could conventionally compete and win an Oscar. Yet, this film has won the coveted 2023 Golden Camera award at the Cannes international film festival , from amongst debut films competing in all the competitive sections of the 2023 festival. The Vietnamese film  was chosen in the ‘Director’s Fortnight’ section and won the coveted award that transcends the conventional borders of that particular section of the festival. A dream-start for a young, relatively unknown filmmaker’s career who scripted a mature screenplay with the lead character sharing the director’s name.

Thien and his toddler nephew accompany 
his sister-in-law Hanh's coffin to his village

What is remarkable about this work is the swathe of complex ideas that fill the film’s canvas as the young filmmaker Thien paints it. The film opens with a near-monologue over dinner for three in a small, crowded restaurant in Saigon over the opportunities offered in city life versus those in rural Vietnam. The ensuing film does discuss that in a meandering manner. What is equally remarkable is that the film’s cinematography and the diegetic soundtrack that could amaze perceptive viewers, who notice those aspects while watching a film over the more obvious narrative.   

Thein (back to the camera) listens to former soldier Lu'u
in his humble abode. There is no music, only diegetic sound. 

 As the film unspools, there are ordinary conversations between young and old, strangers and villagers who have known each other’s families over decades; small birds that enter the film’s narrative and then die, adding to the mosaic of lives offered in the film;  magic tricks to entrance kids (and even elder viewers of the film) with props such as a finger-sized bell that proves to have a tale of its own as the film progresses; and dialogs between different elders and Thien that reek of wisdom and philosophy rarely encountered in a film made by a young director. The connection between Thien and his elders are as mystical as varied encounters of Thien has with nature (rain, butterflies, sericulture cocoons, dreams of aggressive buffaloes that sense danger only to turn around, the soothing invitation of the flowing waters of a brook). 

Searching for his brother Tam,
Thien encounters the wise old lady who experienced
a near death event and has wisdom to impart for his search

After the conversation with the old lady, Thien falls asleep
at the same spot, and dreams of an encounter with buffaloes

On waking up, Thien has an urge to walk in the rain,
until encountering the shrub with white butterflies

Each character populating the film offers depth to the screenplay. Thiem’s brother Tam, who has suddenly left his wife and son, had wanted and to be a priest, until his theological teachers advised him to get married instead. Tam’s wife Hanh is described as a woman of “faith,” who wanted to give birth to her unborn child, even after doctors had warned her that the child would be born without arms. A former soldier who had fought in the Vietnam war and had once enjoyed war combats as a young man, explains to Thien that he no longer has interest in lucre even when it is offered to him by Thien and instead  prefers to live a humble life, preparing shrouds for the dead in his village. Then there is an old lady, who claims to have endured a near death experience, providing philosophical solace to Thien in his quest to locate his elder brother to inform him of his wife Hanh’s passing and of his son being admitted into a convent where Thien’s former sweetheart, now a nun, teaches the tiny tots.  

Thien gets closer to finding his brother Tam (a sericulturist) 
and holds Tam's child surrounded by yellow silk cocoons

Tam's new wife with Tam's child leads Thien to Tam's
work spot 

At Tam's work spot, Thien falls asleep, Tam's wife and child
disappear, and the farm owner (back to camera) states
that there is no Tam there. (For confused filmgoers. the
maroon bag on the moped is crucial to explain matters)

What is stunning is the long single shot of Thien holding Tam’s baby in his arms and the shot ending without cuts with Thien sleeping on his moped alone and being woken up by the farm owner who states that there is no person named Tam anywhere near his farm.  These are aspects (sleep, dreams, etc.) in Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell that any knowledgeable filmgoer will recall of the Thai  director Weerasethakul’s superb film  Memoria, another cinematic tale connecting death, history  and the present or the long takes of the Greek director Angelopoulos, drifting in time within a single shot. The sudden rains (common in Vietnam and other parts of Asia) is intentionally used as a stylistic device to blur time and space. Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell, as in Zvyaginstev’s The Return or Tarkovsky’s earth sequences in Solaris uses rain to invite Thien  on a dreamlike walk that offers images akin to Joycean epiphanies (white butterflies on a particular shrub in the rain). Could it be a mulberry shrub? The viewer is equally reminded of Theo Angelopoulos’ films (e.g., Eternity and a Day) of the historical connections of the Vietnam war and the present and the present through the memories of elders, such as the former soldier Lu’u, content making shrouds for the dead remarking that there will be no one else to do it, if he stopped doing it.

The last shot: Thien lies in the brook as the gently flowing
waters of the brook stroke his body
Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell may not appeal to the millions who love commercial cinema and believe the Oscars, the BAFTAs and the Golden Globes honor the best in world cinema, oblivious of good cinema of a different kind being made elsewhere on the globe. That is where the three big film festivals of the world (Cannes, Berlin, and Venice) step in to alert us to the fact such films do exist.  Knowledgeable folks know that even Hollywood’s best filmmakers compete in those festivals for early valuable recognition before the Oscar circus.  
Thien An Pham’s Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell has heralded the arrival of a new prodigy from Vietnam. This cinematic product amply proves that any young director with talent will get world recognition, if the film’s style and content are original and admirable, while specifically not spoon-feeding a lazy viewer on what the film is all about. A good film has to ultimately make the viewer think.     

P.S. Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell won the Golden Camera award at Cannes, the Roberto Rossellini award for the Best Film at the Pingyao (China) and the Best Asian feature film award at the Singapore international film festival. Three films, mentioned in passing in the above review—Memoria, The Return and Solaris have been reviewed on this blog earlier and those reviews can be accessed by clicking on their names in this postscript.

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