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
screened at this year’s Asian American International Film Festival in New York.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
Labels: AAIFF '12, Anthology Films, Thanh Van Ngo, Vietnamese Cinema