(director/writer: Pham Thien An; cinematographer: Dinh Duy Hung; editor: Pham Thien An; cast: Le Phong Vu (Thien), Nguyen Thi Truc Quynh (Sister Thao), Dylan Besseau (Hunh), Nguyen Thinh (Dao), Vu Ngoc Manh (Trung); Runtime: 178; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Jeremy Chua, Tran Van Thi; Kino Lorber; 2023-Vietnam/Singapore/France/Spain- in Vietnamese with English subtitles)

“A listless but intriguing mysterious road movie and character story with deep religious overtones.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The debut film of Vietnamese filmmaker, writer and editor Pham Thien An, is a listless but intriguing mysterious road movie and character story with deep religious overtones. It’s set in 2018.

The arty film is a slow moving study of both an individual and a country in transition. It won the prestigious Camera d’Or at Cannes this year, but is an acquired taste since it will not appeal to all. But for those it appeals to, it will be a strong and fulfilling film.

The narrative revolves around the thirtysomething morose bachelor video editor, Thien (
Le Phong Vu), who no longer believes in religion, since moving from his childhood home in the sticks to the bustling capital of Vietnam.

Thien lives a carefree and useless life in Saigon. One day while at a bar in town, his sister in-law Hanh dies in a freak motorcycle accident on the same street where he’s drinking. He takes her body back to the same rural village where they were both raised, so she can have a proper Christian burial with her family present. He brings along her surviving son, his 5-year-old nephew Dao (Nguyen Thinh), who survived the accident but now needs a guardian. Thien’s religious brother Tam, Hanh’s former husband, has mysteriously left town and has abandoned his second wife a while ago, with no reasons given. Also, he leaves no forwarding address. Thien is determined to find him and give him his son to raise, and treks across the rural countryside in pursuit on his motor bike.

The meandering film has the viewer lose track of time, as the superb DOP Dinh Duy Hung fills the screen with mesmerizing static long takes and wide-angle shots, as it films the landscapes of the cities and villages our protagonist passes through on his search for Tam. The film is about the lost soul’s attempt to find a meaning to his life without worshiping a God and to discover what his country is like since its days of constant war from the 1950s through the 1970s and later reunification between the North and South. On his trek, he has a beguiling encounter with his former girlfriend, now a Catholic nun, Sister Thao (Nguyen Thi Truc Quynh), and wonders if he should have married her.

it’s a sublime film about a sad person’s spiritual journey in a film that tries to get into his head and see what he is thinking.

Though technically exceptional, the pensive but meandering film could have been shortened and probably would have been a better watch.

It played at the Cannes Film Festival.

Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell
REVIEWED ON 12/30/2023  GRADE: B