Cánh Đồng Bất Tận

Based on the short story by Nguyn Ngc Tư
Directed by Nguyn Phan Quang Bình

Starring Dustin Nguyễn (21 Jump Street), Đ Th Hi Yến (The Quiet American)
Guest appearance by Tăng Thành Hà (uuhhmmm..okay…?)

I went to Megastar Cineplex in Hanoi this afternoon to see “Floating Lives”, and investigate for myself what all the hype was about…

“Floating Lives” or more accurately “Immense Fields” is a pleasant surprise, especially to a skeptic of the Vietnamese film industry like myself. Before the movie began, I was mentally prepared for the worst because, let’s face it, both Vertical Ray of the Sun and The Scent of Green Papaya, the first two titles that come to mind when referencing contemporary Vietnamese cinema, have me holding the remote in my hand, fast forwarding through those quiet, drawn out scenes.

Unfortunately, the Floating Lives trailer does not do the movie justice at all. After watching it, I was puzzled as to what the film was actually about. There’s some fighting, some sex, and a house on fire, all Hollywoodesque highlights that fail to tell the two-minute story. It left me wondering if there was even a story worth telling. In retrospect I can say that the trailer really misrepresents the nature of the film and its characters because, with the exception of several climactic scenes, they both progress without any emotional roller coasters.

I enjoyed the film because the plot did not develop as I expected. Although there were no sudden twists to speak of, I felt a continual inner tension, a desire to project my will onto the story in order to pull it back to a direction I found more comfortable, familiar, and yes, even predictable. Fortunately the film continued, unaffected by my psychic powers, to subtly depart from the beaten path of the typical tragic love story. Yes, Suong the prostitute and outcast appears to enter the lives of an emotionally crippled family to conveniently fill a niche, winning over the love of the man’s children, first as a big sister, and later as the prospect of a second mother. Yes, it’s true she has a brief sexual relationship with the main character (I’m not giving anything away, it’s in the trailer!), and following the natural course of events, this would typically be where the protagonist experiences his revelation and the expected turning point of the film, but… he never does. He doesn’t move on from the decade old memories of his runaway wife, and remains the same hardened, silent, emotionally suppressed man as before. It’s safe to say that the two main characters never truly share a relationship with each other at all.

The family’s plight is a rather unfortunate one and they continue to fall apart until the very end, when the man finally comes to terms with his internal struggle and is resolved to his new life with a melancholy smile. But by this time, considering what’s already happened in the movie, I’d say this is about as close to a happy ending as is possible.

The director decided on an economic use of dialogue, rejecting both silent panoramic scenes as well as the speech dependent approach that comprises Vietnamese dramas in general, not to mention the majority of historical Vietnamese cinema. The countryside of the Mekong delta was neither portrayed as overly romantic nor was it neglected and begrudgingly tolerated as the necessary evil of a rural setting. I was impressed and entertained to see that the character’s surroundings were embraced as a living element that they constantly remained involved in, constantly participated in. I enjoyed the semi educational element conveyed through different aspects of daily life rarely seen elsewhere. These include normally mundane activities such as fishing with reed baskets, sharpening knives, catching field rats, and herding ducks. The story was told through their environment just as much as by their words. The artistic, photogenic choices of backdrop stood out as well, with the yellow tinge of marsh grasses contrasting with lush green fields and straw coloured harvest grains. Everyday tools and materials such as fishing boats, eating utensils, mosquito nets and potted plants seemed to play a role alongside other stimulating shapes and textures found throughout the virgin countryside.

Dustin Nguyễn and Đỗ Thị Hải Yến 
I walked away impressed cinematically and satisfied emotionally, with a shade of that contagious melancholy from the last two minutes of the film having rubbed off on me somehow.

Would I recommend it? Yes. My advice is to forget about your preconceived notions of the Vietnamese film industry before walking into the theatre, expecting it to be similar to any other feature length film (except…mmaaayyybbeeee Áo La Hà Đông), or heaven forbid, anywhere remotely similar to televised Vietnamese drama. I hope Vietnamese directors and producers take advantage of the popularity of this film and use it as a fresh start to a new genre and new identity for Vietnamese cinema.

By the by: Both the newspaper and the Megastar website label the film as having English subtitles. I was slightly surprised to hear as I was purchasing my ticket that in fact there are none. I got by okay because the script was simple and conversational, but the Mekong countryside accent presented a number of challenges. However, I believe that you do not need to understand a word of what they are saying to enjoy the story, for the film is neither dependent on language nor special effects to convey its message. So check it out! West Lake Review approved.

-Zac Herman

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