Tran Anh Hung

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7.0 Scent of Green Papaya (1993)
7.0 Cyclo (1995)
7.1 Vertical Ray of the Sun (2000)

Tran Anh Hung (Vietnam, 1962), raised in Paris, debuted with Mui du du Xanh/ Scent of Green Papaya (1993), a gentle fairy tale that tells the story of a Cinderella in the modern world while documenting the drama of a crumbling marriage and of a mistreated wife in the traditional world. The first part is a psychological and visual masterpiece worthy of Ozu (a tropical version of Ozu) but the second part feels rushed and superficial. In 1951 in Saigon (at the time still a French colony), a little girl, Mui, is looking for a home. She is the new servant of a rich family. When she arrives, the father is playing music by himself with a somber expression. He never smiles. His wife is equally somber. They have an older son Trung, who hangs out with his handsome and rich friend Khuyen, and two little boys, Lam and Tin. Fun and entertainment are limited because every evening a siren announces the curfew. The older servant teaches Mui how to cook. Mui is mostly silent and curious about this new world. One day she stares at the picture of the dead daughter, who would be her age, as the mother told her. Mui and the old servant eat the leftovers of the family's dinner. Mui is happy just staring at the ants that carry heavy loads to their nest, while Lam in his room kills them with hot wax. The mother runs their little shop of textiles and keeps the money and the jewelry in a safe. The mother likes Mui, who clearly reminds her of the dead daughter, while Tin is jealous of her and mean to her. An old neighbor, Thuan, befriends Mui: he asks her about granma, who lives secluded in the top floor and spends all the time praying. Mui tells the old servant that her father died three years earlier. The servant tells her that the family's daughter died seven years earlier. The dark secret of the family is that the father repeatedly ran away with all the money and came back after spending all the money on other women. The last time he came back to find his daughter dead, and he never forgave himself, assuming that it was the punishment for his sons. Shortly after this conversation he does it again: the mother finds the safe empty and the father doesn't come back at curfew time. The mother continues to run the shop as usual. Tin gets even meaner with Mui. Lam is constantly in a bad mood. One day Lam overhears granma blaming his mother for father's disappearance, as if mother didn't find a way to make father happy at home. One evening they have Khuyen as the special guest over for dinner and little Mui dresses up for the occasion, clearly in love with the older boy. Thuan approaches Mui again and tells her that granma rejected him after granpa died, but he still secretely in love. He hasn't seen her in seven years because she never left her room after the death of her granddaughter. Mui lets him in so that he can climb silently the stairs and take a peek at granma, who is praying as usual. One morning the father returns, with some of the jewelry, but he is very sick and dies. The family is now so poor that mother has to sell some of her precious ancient vases.

The film then jumps ten years ahead. Mui is now a young woman, but still a servant in the house. Business is bad, and Lam's wife, who now runs the shop, decides to reduce the expenses. Mui is sent to serve at Khuyen's family, a family that is much richer than them. Mother, who now lives in granma's old room, is heartbroken to be separated from Mui, who has become a daughter to her. Mother gifts Mui a red dress and a necklace. Mui leaves without saying a word. Next we see her at work in Khuyen's house. The young man spends most of his time composing music and playing the piano. He has a rich fiance. One night Mui wears the red dress and steals a lipstick. Khuyen catches her using the lipstick. She runs away and hides but he finds her. They don't exchange a word. One rainy evening the fiance gets angry that he ignores her to pay the piano and leaves. Khuyen silently walks into Mui's room. When the fiance learns that he dumped her, she breaks all of the vases in the house and then runs out, leaving the engagement ring. Khuyen teaches Mui how to read and the film ends with a pregnant Mui reading poetry.

Cyclo (1995) is a cruel, realistic portrait of poverty, wrapped in existential spleen. The story is pointlessly complicated by the director's limited narrative skills (we often we see a scene flash by and we are left to wonder "what happened?") and some symbols remain cryptic (the helicopter in the square, the fish in the mouth), but the portrait is still powerful, and the final message is very clear: the loser are doomed to be left behind.

An (unnamed) 18-year-old boy works all day as a cycle taxi around the big city. A friend tells him of a government program for poor people and he applies. During the interview we learn that his father was riding a "cyclo" too and died in a traffic accident, while his mother died giving birth. He lives with his grandparents and two sisters: the older one works at the market, the little one works as a "shoeshine" in restaurants. Granpa also works but he has pain in a shoulder and the family tells him to start a new job with a scale that has been delivered to them by mistake. The boy does not own his bicycle: it belongs to his boss, a woman with a mentally retarded boy. One day he is stopped by a gang because he has entered their turf. An accelerated scene shows us the ordinary lives of the many families that share the same big building. In the morning the boy rides his older sister to school. Later, the gang steals his cyclo. He runs after them but they beat him up in the middle of the busy street: nobody stops to help him. He reports to the boss that the cyclo has been stolen. Boys who work for her escort him to a different house where he is supposed to remain in isolation (it is not clear why). On the way he recognizes the leader of the thieves but the other boys tell him that he works for the same lady boss. The leader of these boys is a melancholy chain smoker who recites poetry in his head. This "poet" runs a prostitution ring. It is not clear why, but the cyclo boy's older sister visits this "poet", presumably to enroll as a prostitute. He leaves her with a middle-aged customer but, after she cries that she doesn't want to lose her virginity, he warns the customer not to touch her. He then walks around the balconies to spy what happens in the room: the customer asks the girl to drink a lot of water and then pee in front of him. Meanwhile the cyclo boy gets involved in some mischief and tries to save someone who is drowning (it is not clear why and what). Somehow the gangsters are pleased with his action and reward him with a roll of banknotes, but he remains confined in the ugly apartment. By now his sister is basically dating the gangster-poet. They are shown with their eyes closed while a voiceover recited poetry. And then we see children also with their eyes closed. The gangster-poet bleeds from his nose frequently. He takes the girl to his parents. His mother is caring and loving, but his father despises him for being a gangster and a pimp and attacks him and kicks him out. It turns out that this gangster-poet is also sleeping with the lady boss. She tells him how she got pregnant when she was still a teenager and had this mentally retarded son and the father ran away. Meanwhile, the cyclo boy seems to have a new assignment: he buys gasoline and a tshirt, then builds a Molotov cocktail and throws it into a shop, setting it on fire (it is not clear why). He runs away, chased by cops, while a man crawls out of the shop engulfed in flames. He escapes capture and returns to the apartment drenched in mud, with little insects and worms crawling on his face (not clear why). His sister strips for another customer and again no sex is involved because this one is only interested in her toes. The cyclo boy announces that he wants to join the gang. The gangster-poet doesn't seem happy about the news. The others take him to another apartment where a man is being tortured and he witnesses as a gangster slits his throat. The gangster then gifts the knife to the boy as a souvenir. Later the boy captures a lizard and swallows it alive. His sister tells the gangster-poet that she is sad that he doesn't love her as much as he loves the lady boss and her retarded son. They watch as a truck accidentally drops a helicopter in the square. The cyclo boy sees the same scene from the other apartment. An old gangster shows him a machine gun and explains how it works. His sister and the gangster-poet have a date at a nice cafe. Back home, the prostitutes play with water guns like children. One suspects she is pregnant. The cyclo boy follows the gang to a slaughterhouse where they show him how they insert bags of drugs into pork meat. He is then tasked with delivered the pork meat. Two cops stop him in the street and they are about to discover the smuggled drugs when they are distracted by a riot. The result of the riot is that a cyclo boy is run over by a truck and the dead body lands on our hero's cyclo. At night he has a nightmare because that's precisely how his father died. The boy counts the money he made and hides it under his tshirt as he walk in the street. He sees the thief who stole his cyclo and attacks him from behind. He then delivers the money to the lady boss. The gangsters teach him how to use a pistol and how to take drugs to stay calm while killing people. His sister and the gangster-poet ride the motorcycle to a night-club. She dresses sexy and wears handcuffs. He sells her to a business man and walks away, but he is clearly not happy of selling her. The customer rapes her and hurts her wrists. The other prostitutes take care of the crying girl while insulting the gangster-poet who sold her virginity. A man tells the gangster-poet that the customer apologized and paid a huge amount to be forgiven. Nonetheless, the gangster-poet finds him and stabs him repeatedly. When finally the man collapses, the gangster-poet stuffs the dead man's mouth with his money. He then smokes a cigarette from the top of a roof, contemplating life in the street below. Later the girl has recovered and is calmly shopping at the flower market, wearing a nice blue dress. The cyclo boy instead is locked in the ugly apartment, getting drunk and high. The gangster-poet too is getting drunk in his apartment while the voiceover recites his poetry. The gangster-poet sets fire to his apartment and is engulfed by the flames. Meanwhile in the street a group of children is making fun of the lady boss' retarded boy, "fish face". The cyclo boy's sister is walking home when the fire truck is driving through the crowds that are beginning to celebrate New Year's Eve. A cruel practical joke by the children causes "fish face" to jump against the fire truck and get killed, and the cyclo boy's sister witnesses his mother running out of the house and hugging the dead boy. By now a crowd has formed under the building where the gangster-poet's apartment is on fire. In the ugly apartment the cyclo boy, drunk and stoned, paints his face blue and tries to suffocate himself by wrapping his head in a plastic bag. Then he tries to shoot himself but misses. He hits a fish tank and then swallows a fish alive. Now the crowds are celebrating the new year with a procession of lights to the Buddhist temple. The sister joins the crowds and prays with the pilgrims. But we also see that money is passed around in the crowd (not clear why and who). The camera is now moving hysterically, following children who are playing with firecrackers. The following day the girl is sitting alone and melancholy on a bench. A child invites her to have lunch with his family. The gangsters find the cyclo boy alive. He returns home to his grandparents, as does his sister. The last scene shows a new building of luxury apartments, a tennis court, a swimming pool, and next to this modern wealth the crowded street where bicycles still rule. And the cyclo boy riding his family through chaotic traffic.

Mua He Chieu Thang Dung/ Vertical Ray of the Sun (2000) is the cinematic equivalent of chamber music, or still nature. The director roams the lives of the characters while nothing truly happens, as in an eternal never-changing present. The director sets a languid, majestic pace for these lives that feel like a sequence of paintings in a museum, each perfectly organized. AS he carefully, delicately, gently moves the surface of the picture, we see the details, and begin to realize that there is dirt underneath the angelic smoothness. Towards the end, the film actually gets quite eventful, only to realize that the end is really the beginning.

Three sisters, two married and one still single, are preparing a memorial meal while the men chat in a room. Khanh is married to novelist Kien, whose first novel never seems to end. Suong is married to Quoc, a photographer specializing in rare plant species, and they have a little boy. The youngest sister, childish Lien, lives with her twin brother, Hai/Toan, and often sleeps in his bed, indifferent to what people may think of their relationship. Each of the members of the family prays to the pictures of the dead parents and then they set to eat the big meal all together. Her father died one month after her mother (who was, by coincidence, one month older than him), and the sisters want to believe it was a lifetime-long love story. But they know that her mother had a previous lover, although it is not clear what kind of relationship really was. Kien is researching the story of the mysterious lover but the sisters are not sure that they want to know more. The three sisters are simple girls, still attached to traditional values.
Quoc is often out of town for his research. He works at a lab in a tropical island, surrounded by awe-inspiring natural beauty.
Kien and Khanh love each other very tenderly. She tells him that she is pregnant and he almost faints.
Tuan has a lover who refuses to speak a single word. They always make love without speaking. She threatens to leave him if he tries to speak to her again. He begs her to say his name just one last time, but she simply kisses him and makes love to him. Their relationship is most languid languor in the whole film, almost unbearably languorous.
Two sisters wash their hair in front of a mirror and by a fish tank.
Lien and Toan listen to slow, languid western music. Then he tells her of the movie in which he has a small part. Then they chase each other around the apartment like little children.
Khanh is another languid nadir of the film, rarely saying more than needs to be said, contemplating rather than acting, letting others talk for her. Kien asks her permission to fly to Saigon and continue his research into her mother's lover.
Lien is looking for Ho under the rain. Ho hides from her. He's afraid of her, he feels that she dominates him. But his best friend convinces him that Lien has not done any harm and he shouldn't treat her like that.
Everything is slow, sleepy, dreamy.
Quoc has another wife and another child in the island. They live in a hut by the water, surrounded by enchanted nature. They are happy to see him and he is happy to see them. Quoc has decided to go back to the city and speak to Suong, and tells his other wife. His double life has been going on for four years now. She knows, but Suong does not. His other wife is very docile: she lets him go and simply hopes that he will come back.
Khanh is worried about something and asks her sister Suong if she ever considered cheating on Quoc. Suong confesses she had a secret love story with a businessman named Tuan, but they never had sex: she eventually told him that their story had no future.

In Saigon, Kien meets an old acquaintance, Hien, who invites him to her hotel room. He knocks at the door, finds it open and finds Hien half-naked in bed. But then he just walks out, leaving the woman puzzled.
The twins are still sharing beds and fighting like children, but also dancing at their languid pop music.
Tuan and his silent lover are also dancing.
Quoc returns and talks to Suong...
Kien returns and gets the usual loving welcome by Khanh. He finished the novel in just two days. He doesn't tell Khanh of Hien, but Hien has called Khanh and told her that she saw him. Khanh is only mad because Kien told Hien of her pregnancy, which was supposed to remain a secret for a while. But then she looks into the pocket of his coat and finds the note that she wrote inviting him to her hotel room...
Suong shocks Quoc by telling him that she has always known of his double life. She guessed the truth from his pictures of the natives, which always included a child. And she saw that child grow as if he was her own child. She accepted it. She knows he can't erase the other family. She accepts it. She only wants him to love her better than he has because, after all, she "is" his wife.
The silent lover bids farewell from Tuan. (It's been obviously a flashback that told the story of Khanh's half-adultery).
Lien has her own problems with her student of architecture. Eventually, she reveals what the problem is to her sisters: she is pregnant, pregnant of the student. Suong gets furious with her. Khanh starts crying: she tells them that she is pregnant too, and that she suspects that Kien cheated on her in Saigon. Now they all cry together. But then soon they realize that Lien is wrong: she is confused because inexperienced, but she can't be pregnant (she just had her period).
Lien is all excited and, while getting ready, she tells her twin brother that she and her sisters are taking care of the memorial meal. So it was all a flashback to explain what had just happened before the memorial meal...

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(Copyright © 2003 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )
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