By Robert Koehler
Published in Cinema Scope #95 (Summer 2023)
Cinema has always had to defend itself against the pressures of business and capital, and yet, because filmmaking remains expensive (contrary to the false digital fantasies of “cheap” cameras), it is business and capital that continues to keep cinema going. This contradiction of conditions deepens when the filmmaking takes place in a communist-governed nation like Vietnam, where capital operates (albeit sometimes uneasily) within a state-run system. And the contradiction deepens further when considering a Vietnamese filmmaker like Pham Thien An, whose developing body of work explores various levels of contemporary Vietnamese society—particularly the dramatic contrasts of city and country—as well as various states of non-belief and belief, especially (but not only) a deep devotion to Roman Catholicism.
The polar pull between a modern yearning for things, technology, glitzy entertainments, sex, and all the toys of capitalism, and a continuing obeisance to religion, traditions, obligations, and family is front and centre in Pham’s superb first short, The Mute (2018), which I saw in its world premiere at the Palm Springs ShortFest; it is also present, in a different form, in his second short, Stay Awake, Be Ready (2019), which marked Pham’s debut at Cannes’ Directors Fortnight. But what we didn’t know then and can now see in Pham’s extraordinary feature debut Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell, which premiered in the Quinzaine and won this year’s Camera d’Or, is that The Mute’s choreographed single-shot scene, set on a Saigon street, was a trial run for the opening sequence of the subsequent feature, whose treatment and basic concepts Pham had already conceived. This opening establishes many of the three-hour film’s concerns, even as it reserves the revelation of its essential nature as a complex work of oneiric cinema for later.
Thien (Le Phong Vu) is hanging out with a couple of buddies at an outdoor café adjacent to a soccer field while the actual 2018 World Cup is taking place (specifically, on June 16). He’s troubled to learn that one of his friends at the table is selling all his earthly possessions and retreating from Saigon for a spiritual life in the western highlands. Thien knows that his problem isn’t with his friend, who utters the movie’s first word of dialogue (“Eternity”), but with how he himself may need a spiritual cleansing; the way he puts it—“The existence of faith is ambiguous”—is both the film’s launch point and its essential philosophical/aesthetic position. Like Pham, Thien was born in the countryside but moved to Saigon to work and make money, which he earns as a wedding video editor. A brief debate about his friend’s crazy-sounding project prompts the film’s only moment of real conflict between its characters, until—as in the short—an offscreen motorcycle accident interrupts them.
This event is a turning point, since one of the accident’s fatalities is Thien’s sister-in-law Teresa, who, along with her five-year-old son Dao (Nguyen Thinh), had previously been abandoned by her husband, Thien’s brother Tam. As Dao’s only family, Thien must take care of him and return to his hometown of Di Linh for the elaborate, days-long sequence of multiple funerary ceremonies for Teresa—and, he quietly hopes, find his long-lost brother. In an early example of Pham’s whole-hearted embrace of a symbolist, poetic cinema that connects him such forebears as Dreyer, Buñuel, Angelopoulos, and Tarr, Thien demonstrates his nurturing abilities by picking up a tiny, abandoned sparrow on the street outside the hospital and taking it back to his apartment, where he works while taking care of Dao (amusing him with card tricks, which soon shift into actual magic tricks). The suggestion that Thien may have some hidden powers is a bit of misdirection, but his capacity for love is genuine.
As cinematographer Dinh Duy Hung’s camera (patient, observant, both fixed and subtly mobile) thoughtfully tracks Thien’s return to his hometown, it gradually becomes clear that this is a young man in a genuine pursuit of emotional, and possibly spiritual, reconnections with people, places, and ideas he has lost. It’s equally clear that Thien doesn’t quite know how to go about this, which is why the film’s running time and leisurely pace are entirely organic to Pham’s own pursuit of Thien’s essence. While one could posit that the Western equivalent of Pham’s project is the Bildungsroman, that ultimately turns out to be a crude comparison—just as crude as likening Pham’s cinema to the work of Tsai Ming-liang (lots of water and rain) and Apichatpong Weerasethakul (ghosts make appearances). Thien’s story is presented in cinematic terms as one of an accumulation of experiences, encounters, acts of listening, a personal reintroduction to nature (particularly the dramatic contrasts between a grubby, crowded, and lethal Saigon and a countryside ribboned in a heaven-like fog and sightings of creatures from oxen to butterflies), and the film’s most important transitional element: a shift from sequences throbbing with the social activity of people in the throes of World Cup fever, to passages that become positively oneiric.
However, just like the faith that Thien refers to at the start, his dream state is somewhat ambiguous in Pham’s ingenious staging. The return of this native to his hometown certainly does prompt memories—especially of his former girlfriend, Thao (Nguyen Thi Truc Quynh), who’s now a nun at a Catholic school where Thien registers Dao for classes. In one of the movie’s most remarkable sequences, an invisible cut takes us to an abandoned brick building with a view of the town where Thien wanders and a playful Thao, dashing to and fro, joins him for a heart-to-heart about her future plans. Thao is dressed in civilian clothes, but Thien looks exactly as he does in the present moment of action; we are in both a flashback and a memory, a layering of times that both crystallizes for Thien what he has lost with the only woman he’s ever loved, and represents what he’s currently missing.
Thien is also missing experiences, which he’s reminded of during two resonant meetings with elders—a Vietnam War veteran who works as a “shrouder” at funerals, and an elderly, devoutly Catholic woman at a roadside mechanics shop—who each represent different embodiments of what it means to live a life of sacrifice, devotion, and earned wisdom. The woman’s belief in eternity brings the narrative full circle to the opening scene at the café, as does her quotation from Mark 8, which could be read as Thien’s precise dilemma: “For what shall profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” Thien’s determination to precisely not lose his own soul is now mirrored in the dilemma of his creator, whose Cannes success has now brought him up flush with the seemingly inevitable yoking of cinema to the profit motive. It is hard to recall a recent film in which a filmmaker and their central character are so tethered without an indication of an autobiographical narrative strategy. This connection, created partly through the film’s unobtrusive, calm camerawork (Pham has spoken of his desire for a kind of “invisible” camera) and nuanced formal touch, derives, I think, from a devotional quality in Pham’s filmmaking. But while iconic images of the Virgin Mary and other Catholic symbols appear far more often than depictions of the national flag or other emblems of state power, they don’t connote the film as “Catholic” in a literal sense. While Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell references broadly Christian ideas through such scenes as an actual Good Samaritan and a finale that will, for some, suggest a baptism, to read it through a strictly religious lens would limit what is an ambitious, expansive work of art. Thien’s quest of the soul is an expression of the ideas in Viktor Frankl’s seminal text Man’s Search for Meaning, which he wrote after surviving Auschwitz. Meaning, Frankl argued, is life’s true purpose and pursuit, gained through an accumulation of experiences, suffering, loss, gains, and time. The viewer’s experience of time in Pham’s film finally aligns with Thien’s own, sometimes stumbling pursuit, which ends in a suspended state of stillness (his body floating, facing the sky) and flow, as the river on which he’s floating rushes to the sea.