In a dim room, in the early morning hours, an alarm clock goes off and signals the beginning of a new day. A young man groggily rises from bed and rousts his younger sister, who pleads for a few more minutes of sleep. The young man reminds her that it is the anniversary of their mother’s death, and that she must get up early to help her sisters prepare for the occasion.
What follows—in these opening minutes of Vietnamese director Tran Ahn Hung’s The Vertical Ray of the Sun—is one of the most tranquil and visually seductive openings in any film of recent memory. As the camera moves languidly through their small home, and the dusty voice of Lou Reed croons in the background, brother Hai (Ngo Quanq Hai) and sister Lien (Tran’s wife, actress Tran Nu Yen-Khe) leisurely go about their morning rituals: stretching, doing a few push-ups, performing improvised tai-chi, glancing out the window to check the weather. It is the quiet wonder of a morning that is not rushed, allowed to unfold moment by gentle moment.
Once Lien and Hai arrive at their family-run cafe, Lien joins middle sister Khanh (Le Khahn) and eldest sister Suong (Nguyen Nhu Quynh) in the preparations for their mother’s memorial. Here the film’s tactile sensuality closely resembles that of Tran’s first film, the beguiling The Scent of Green Papaya, and after seeing both films, of this I am certain: Tran digs fruit. Just as in Green Papaya, we get a close-up of actress Tran Nu Yen-Khe slicing open a papaya (or some fruit of the sort) as the shot lingers on the lustrous, moist flesh inside. And as both films show, Tran’s also captivated by the process of cooking. There is an amusing moment here when the sisters discuss the male member, while they peel the skin off of chicken feet, an act that is “disgusting and yet satisfying” at the same time. During the subsequent family gathering, the sisters discuss their parents’ relationship, in particular, how their harmonious union may have been troubled by the presence of certain mystery man named Toan, with whom their mother may or may not have had an affair. The parents’ history becomes a unifying motif in the lives of their offspring, for as we come to see, just as the parents were, so, too, the children are.
Suong runs the family cafe with her photographer husband, Quoc (Chu Ngoc Hung), a man torn to very soul by his inability to choose between two different domiciles, one with his wife, the other with a woman who is not. Suong herself is involved in an illicit relationship in which she has taken a vow of silence (a show of her simultaneous feelings of guilt and penance), and communicates only through song, gesture, and that most primal syntax, sex. Khahn, deeply enamored of her writer husband, Kien (Tran Manh Cuong), is distraught over an affair that she thinks he’s having. And Kien gives her grounds for suspicion, using an investigation into the aforementioned Toan as a pretext to go on a trip, only to set his eyes on a fellow traveler. As yet untethered by marriage, youngest sister Lien pines for a local boy, while directing her romantic fantasies and budding sexuality toward her reluctant brother. Meanwhile, the torrential rain and tropical heat reflect the opposing forces of suppressing and expressing desire.
Much like Green Papaya, The Vertical Ray of the Sun is Tran Ahn Hung’s cinematic valentine to his wife. He can’t seem to take his eyes—or camera—off her, and so, neither can we. An indicative shot is of Lien and her sisters as they wash their hair together, the sheen of their long locks gleaming brilliantly in the afternoon sun. (This is yet another familiar sight: we saw Tran Nu’s character wash her hair in Green Papaya also.) With some assistance from cinematographer Mark Ping Bin Lee, Tran has yet again crafted an intoxicatingly gorgeous film. On top of this, The Vertical Ray of the Sun movingly depicts the cyclical nature of family and progeny, how our lives can essentially rewrite those of our parents. I underline this theme in preference to the marital or sexual ones in the film because while American audiences may be prone to focus on the latter, the former is equally important in the context of Vietnamese society, where the centrality of family ties (not just immediate family but also far-extending family) is paramount. A scene that captures this occurs during the mother’s memorial gathering when Suong, cradling a guitar, breaks into a wistful song that is soon joined in by everyone present, as the camera slowly pans over them. It is an absolutely sublime moment.
Most movies could only wish for this combination of visual superiority and emotional sagacity, but still I wanted more, and only because this is Tran Anh Hung. His second film, the dark and disturbing Cyclo, was an indication that he might continue to pair his immaculate style with pointed social commentary, but Vertical Ray finds him eschewing this direction in favor of a Bergman-like meditation on marriage and infidelity. Even the deceptively idyllic Green Papaya, beneath all its prettiness, made some pointed observations about class, gender, servitude, domesticity, and modernization, as well as how the upheaval of war can redefine their intersecting relationships. And while there is some notable reflection on gender in Vietnamese society (e.g., Suong’s self-imposed vow of silence as metaphor), I hope Tran doesn’t keep portraying Vietnamese women as noble matrons sacrificing themselves to hold their families together while their rootless men wander off in pursuit of selfish whims. Historically speaking, many men of the war generation did leave their families, temporarily or permanently, but not to have affairs. They went off to die in combat.
And speaking of war, I’ve been hearing from a few sources, both critics and regular moviegoers, about how nice it is to finally see a movie about Vietnam that has nothing to do with war, and instead focuses on the more “universal” issues. I find this annoying sentiment to be grounded in ignorance, for two reasons. One, most of the movies “about Vietnam” to which Americans are exposed were made by white filmmakers and take their perspective. Coppola, Stone, Kubrick, and DePalma have made some of the better ones, but let’s get this straight: they are not movies about Vietnam per se, any more than Tim Burton’s remake of Planet of the Apes is about America per se (well, actually, maybe it is, especially since this nation is currently being ruled by a chimp). Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, and Casualties of War detail thecombat experiences of U.S. soldiers during the war and, in doing so, sometimes tackle larger political or philosophical issues, like the madness of war or what not. Two, the war indelibly affected the geography, society, and economy of Vietnam. Its historical relevance cannot be overstated, because it begot, in effect, a new, metamorphosed nation, and when an entity is born out of such cataclysmic circumstances, those circumstances are forever a part of its identity and being. Americans, having never hosted a modern war on home ground, are not predisposed to understand this. Moreover, the war in Vietnam and its aftermath are relatively recent. Why shouldn’t images of the war’s legacy appear in film after film? After all, as Tran has demonstrated with his first two films, its effects do not always appear in obvious ways.
Still, some people have a problem with this and they are usually of two ilks: traumatized Vietnamese who want nothing else but to bury their ghosts and move on with new lives, or Americans who are either guilt-ridden or self-righteous about their country’s involvement in the war. It is with this these audiences that the visually ravishing but disappointingly apolitical Vertical Ray of the Sun manages to be most ingratiating. It seems to me that after having completed a few features now, Tran, like certain other filmmakers before him (Ang Lee comes to mind), is beginning to become self-conscious about catering to an international (read Western) audience. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that he relies on the support of European financiers, producers, and distributors for all his work. Maybe he feels that he owes them a film that has a chance at making some money. Nobody saw Cyclo because it wasn’t very pretty. More people will see The Vertical Ray of the Sun because it is.
And so the question remains: Is Tran being true to his own tastes or is he concocting cinematic delicacies that he knows will appeal to a Western palate? It’s still too hard to tell, but in fairness to Tran, his aesthetics do seem to coincide better with the lush gardens and parlors of Green Papaya and Vertical Ray than the mean streets of Cyclo. Most Hollywood hacks can only dream of ever accomplishing what Tran has with every one of his films so far.