a review by Jeffrey Overstreet
Writer/director – Tran Anh Hung
Director of photography – Mark Lee Ping-Bin
Editor – Mario Battistel
Music – Ton That Tiet, with Vietnamese songs by Trinh Cong Son
Art director – Benoît Barouh
Producer – Christophe Rossignon
Sony Pictures Classics. 112 minutes. In Vietnamese, with English subtitles. Rated PG-13.
STARRING: Tran Nu Yen-Khe (Lien), Nguyen Nhu Quynh (Suong), Le Khanh (Khanh), Chu Ngoc Hung (Quoc), Tran Manh Cuong (Kien) and Ngo Quanq Hai (Hai).
Tran Anh Hung, director of The Scent of Green Papaya, seems to use a story as an excuse to film natural beauty. His latest, The Vertical Ray of the Sun, is no exception.
Vertical Ray tells the stories, actually chapters from the stories, of three sisters in Hanoi and their different experiences in love and loss. Two are married – Suong and Kanh – and the youngest, Lien, is still dating. For the first hour of the film, we bask in the joys of their seemingly simple, tradition-rich life. The movie is bookended by annual memorial dinners in memory of their departed mother. We watch them prepare and we join them for the festivities. Sunlight floods through windows, giving everything a dreamy, summery look. You’ll feel like eating, and then you’ll feel like taking a nap.
Mark Lee Ping-Bin, who filmed the marvelous Flowers of Shanghai and In the Mood for Love, deserves applause for his outstanding work here. He is proving to be one of the most versatile cinematographers working today, and I’ll look forward to anything he does in the future.
The sisters run a cafe, and thus many conversations are shared over the preparation of food. The sensuality of cooking is nothing new to film. Every year we see new evidence that fine dining and sex are inextricably linked in our psyche, and Vertical Ray has some memorable contributions to what could almost be called a new genre… the Culinary Comedy. (My favorites: Babette’s Feast, Like Water for Chocolate, Big Night.) Frank talk about sex in this film has a different quality; the sisters live such healthy lives and have such strong relationships that their talk never comes across as crass (although some viewers might become, well, uncomfortable when the sisters quietly giggled about sautéing a certain part of the male anatomy with garlic).
There is a dazzling sensuality to the interactions between husband and wife in this film. I’ve never seen so many “making out scenes” between married couples before. What a refreshing change, in a day when 9 out of 10 love scenes show us secret and reckless liaisons between immature unmarried grownups. In one scene, a husband finds his wife singing in the garden and the secret he discovers there leads to some of the most tender and beautiful exchanges I’ve ever seen on the screen. Marriage, a good thing? Rewarding? Sexy? What will Hollywood’s answer be to such scandalous suggestions!
Lien, the 19-year-old dreamer, is clearly the character about whom Tran cares the most. There are many scenes of her slowly waking up and stretching like a lazy cat in her funky apartment, which she shares with her brother. The camera seems transfixed by her gleaming black hair, especially when it is wet. One scene, in which she gets caught up in the music of the Velvet Underground and dances about the apartment, is the best solo dance onscreen since Uma Thurman’s pre-overdose dance in Pulp Fiction. These scenes alone are worth the ticket. Lien is indeed a gorgeous creature, but her strength is also her weakness. Her reckless sexuality, which nearly perverts her relationship with her brother, leads her to hasty involvement with her boyfriend and an embarrassing misunderstanding.
While Lien’s black hair and gleaming skin is the focus of the film’s gorgeous imagery, the storytelling is preoccupied with a deep sadness that comes from regret. Older sister Suong’s husband Quoc is a photographer who sees sadness wherever he looks. He’s perfectly cast; the actor’s face seems split in two, one eye wide open, another downcast. As we watch him work, we slowly begin to see what he sees, and learn why he feels torn between two worlds, why he feels at home in “sad places”.
Just when the slow, steamy feel of the film begins to lull you into a trance, things take a bad turn. The specter of dishonesty raises its ugly head, and the sisters find that all of their lives are fractured. We learn each has been keeping secrets. By this point, we have enjoyed the light, the happiness, the dinners, and the children so much that these late-coming truamas are painful and affecting. We feel the enormous consequences of little sins.
Director Tran is not judgmental of his characters. He portrays them as beautiful, flawed people, capable of healing, growing, and forgiveness. I appreciated this optimistic view. No one is a bad guy; everyone is lost, but only a few steps from the right path, and love can re-direct them to a better life.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Vertical Ray is that it ends just as the conflicts reach a fever pitch. We can see possibilities of resolution, possibilities of great misunderstanding and destruction. (One character is left believing something about her beloved that is definitely not true.) But the trials are outweighed by the joy that saturates their lives. Where does it come from? I think it comes from living so closely to the natural beauty of God’s creation, and to involvement in family life. Even if the characters don’t recognize that God is the author of the music in their lives, that music still has a powerful effect on them. Thus, when the conflicts do come, familiar problems that seem devastating in other dramas, they seem like problems that love can heal.
Perhaps we can learn something from this. By placing ourselves near to God’s creation, by living in a way that honors family responsibilities, we can keep both feet on the ground even during life’s little earthquakes.
Tags: Review Archive - V