Slow cinema is a subgenre whose works can pose a significant challenge to those unaccustomed to its patient rhythms, long running times, and minimalist plots. But moviegoers willing to tune into the wavelengths of these films are often rewarded with thoughtful, hypnotic gems that tap into the larger, unspoken currents of life and the world. This is the case with “Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell” by Phạm Thiên Ân, which won the Caméra d'Or (i.e. for best debut) at the Cannes Film Festival last year. A three-hour drama whose sparse story serves as the framework for a formally exquisite examination of loss, faith, family and bonds. It's the first masterpiece of the year and a must for anyone who likes more than just blockbusters.
The film “Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell,” which hits theaters January 19, is deceptively simple from a narrative standpoint. Twenty-something bachelor Thien (Le Phong Vu), laconically stopping by Saigon, is called in to help deal with a family emergency. In his rural Vietnamese hometown, his sister-in-law Hanh died in a car accident, and since her husband (Thien's brother) Tam fled to parts unknown, their five-year-old son Dao (Nguyen Thinh) is now an orphan. Upon his return, Thien takes Dao under his wing, handling Hanh's funeral arrangements and reconnecting with those he hasn't seen since his departure (and the rest of his clan's emigration to the United States). These people include his friend Trung (Vu Ngoc Manh) and nun Thao (Nguyen Thi Truc Quynh), a former girlfriend for whom he still has feelings. Finally, Thien goes in search of his sibling and leads him into the vast landscape.
To say that Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell is light on action is an understatement. However, the lack of a notable (much less heartbreaking) incident is offset by a lush mood brought about by impressive aesthetics. Phạm Thiên Ân takes its cues from Asian contemporaries such as Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Bi Gan (whose first film Kaili Blues seems to be a direct influence) and stages most scenes in extremely long, uninterrupted takes.
These are highlighted by a 25-minute showstopper that begins at a farm where Thien and Trung discuss the cost of Hanh's funeral, then cuts to Thien riding his motorcycle along dirt roads to a cluster of wooden houses, and ends there , that he sits there and talks to older people Mr. Luu (Nguyen Van Lu'u), who made the shroud for Hanh and, after again refusing to pay for the task, talks to Thien about his service in the Vietnam War. Purely in terms of duration, it is an impressive achievement. What makes it truly astonishing, however, is the deftness of Phạm Thiên Ân and Dinh Duy Hung's cinematography, which switches between static compositions, slow zooms and smooth pans – around, in and through exterior and interior spaces – with impressive grace and expressiveness.
In this centerpiece and several related sequences, Phạm Thiên Ân both conceals and reveals. At the same time, his camerawork moves at a contemplative, shifting pace, reinforcing the impression that Thien is floating through the world – an impression reinforced by views of Vietnam's rural villages, valleys and mountains shrouded in a seemingly menacing layer of fog is reinforced by the inhabitants of the earth, as well as a dream in which Thien cycles silently over misty streets, interrupted by the glowing headlights of other vehicles. When Thien asks Thao if she would wait for him, her answer could be an articulation of his own current state: “I feel like I'm drifting. I feel disturbed and suffocated. As if a dense cloud was surrounding me. It prevents me from reaching the light.”
Phạm Thiên Ân's expansive shots invite reflection on his deeply focused images, which often frame figures in doorways, windows and narrow passageways and which the director is full of revealing details, from Mr. Luu's military certificates and family photos to hidden chickens under cages on the floor, to faces reflected in off-center mirrors and surfaces. “Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell” feels simultaneously ethereal and heavy, with the ghosts of the past always surrounding Thien, and yet the burdens of the present – including his grief, alienation and disorientation – sitting heavy on his shoulders and heart. Be it a clock glowing in the dark, whose ticking hands indicate an unstoppable and ominous advance, or Thien's motorcycle rides through this idyllic country – the film exerts a meditative and borderline hallucinatory magic. The line between the real and the unreal is fluid, even without taking into account Thien's penchant for magic tricks to keep Dao's spirits up after his mother's untimely death.
At the heart of Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell's purgatorial confusion and alienation is Thien's spiritual crisis. “The existence of faith is ambiguous… I want to believe, but I can't,” he says early on, and Hanh's subsequent death and the consequences it brings with it exacerbate rather than clarify his questions about God. Like Thao, he is torn between his desire for holy communion and mortal pleasure, unable to satisfactorily reconcile the majestic beauty of the world (where the presence of the Almighty is felt) with the inherent contradictions of the divine will, resulting in it It is expressed that Tam and Hanh were married by the church (“What God has joined, let no man separate”), but Tam then fled and Hanh was returned to heaven.
Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell is a portrait of a man who is unmoored and balances the living with the stressful. In search of stability and unity along unfamiliar avenues and in remote fields and residences, Thien ultimately searches in vain for Tam, only finding more empty and unsatisfying spaces that plunge him into a state of suspended animation. On a roadside where he is having his motorcycle repaired, an elderly woman speaks of the misery of the dead, the rotting poignancy of life, and the need to “seek salvation by praying devotedly and attending Holy Mass…the brevity of suffering.” “Compared to eternity, it is but a fleeting moment.” However, Thien is unable to find solace in God or in fantasies of the afterlife (even those with which he comforts Dao), and remains an aimless wanderer, who is caught between realms and floating in currents he cannot control. “Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell” demands something similar from its viewers, forcing them to submit to its serene and thoughtful cadences. Those who do will be well rewarded.