J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Saturday, August 04, 2012

AAIFF ’12: Pearls of the Far East


The women of Viet Nam are resilient.  They have had to be.  Yet, wars and ideologies are not among the troubles faced by seven diverse Vietnamese women and the men who are close to them.  The trials and tribulations associated with each stage of life are enough to challenge the characters of Minh Ngoc Nguyen’s stories, collected together in Cuong Ngo’s discrete (non-intersecting) anthology film, Pearls of the Far East (trailer here), which screened at this year’s Asian American International Film Festival in New York.

In “Childhood,” Tho is a little girl with affluent but absentee parents.  She lives with her grandmother near the delta, but most of her time is spent with a servant’s adoring son.  Eventually, this idyllic interlude will end for Tho, which is bittersweet in the film’s dramatic context, but even more so in retrospect, when viewers consider what might be in store for her as the child of wealthy landowners.  Indeed, they are likely to remember young Phuong Quynh, who is a natural on-screen, instantly earning audience sympathies.

East’s second chapter, “The Message,” is one of its strongest and one of two with the most genre appeal.  A colleague of a colleague has died.  Since Thiet Thanh will be passing by his mother’s house on her return trip home, she agrees to break the tragic news to the woman.  However, the well-to-do old woman misunderstands (perhaps deliberately) the nature of her visit, assuming she is her son’s fiancé.  Thus begins a subtle paranormal romance.  Yes, maybe there is a ghost in this story and also a deeply compelling performance by Anh Hong.

According to director Ngo’s post-screening Q&A, “Blood Moon,” the Blue Lagoon-ish story of a man and woman living alone on a desert island was the most challenging to get past Viet Nam’s censors because of the proposed nudity.  That is a shame for viewers, because it stars international action superstar Thanh Van (Veronica) Ngo.  Frankly, this couple is exactly what you will suspect they are, but Ngo’s exquisitely sensitive performance makes it work nonetheless.

It is followed by the standout “The Boat,” another chapter the state censors found problematically steamy.  Also ambiguously fantastical, it captures the fleeting romance between an artistically inclined man and a woman who claims to lead an “ephemeral” life.  Things get somewhat empowering when the author herself takes the screen in “Awakening” as Mi, a sort Vietnamese Coco Chanel.  Engaged many times, the fashion designer never ultimately tied the knot.  Fed up with fate, she finds catharsis in one of East’s odder but visually striking scenes.

“The Gift” is the subsequent tale of a middle-aged wife’s frustration with her husband’s inattention and infidelity, featuring some of the film’s most spectacular scenery, but also some of its most conventional dramatic situations.  However, revered Vietnamese actress Kieu Chinh really lowers the boom in the concluding “Time,” playing a Norma Desmond-style actress betrayed by time’s passage, bravely inviting viewers to read autobiographical significance into her role.

Deliberately taking viewers on a south-to-north tour of the country, East looks absolutely gorgeous.  Mikhail Petrenko’s cinematography is a feast for the eyes, well matched by Alexina Louie’s score, evocatively mixing western and eastern classical elements.  However, some viewers might be put off by the film’s lack of inter-connectedness.  This is not Short Cuts.  Nobody will pop-up later in someone else’s story.  The only commonalities for the various chapters are thematic.  While that does make it something of a narrative hodgepodge, at least it frees Ngo from the pressure of contriving excuses to make characters’ paths cross.  Elegant and sometimes kind of hot, Pearls of the Far East definitely deserves to find an art-house audience following its well received screening at the 2012 AAIFF, which wraps-up this weekend at the Chelsea Cinema.

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