J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Mark Lee Ping-Bing at MoMA: The Vertical Ray of the Sun

Lien and her two sisters never made a fuss over their parents’ birthdays while they were living, yet they will prepare lavish feasts for the memorial anniversaries. The irony is not lost on the sisters, because in most respects they embrace life in the moment. However, their romantic entanglements become distractingly messy in Vietnamese-born French-naturalized filmmaker Tran Anh Hung’s The Vertical Ray of the Sun (trailer here), which screens as part of Luminosity, MoMA’s retrospective tribute to cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-Bing.

Vertical is sort of like the lushest, most sensual film Yasujiro Ozu never made. You might say “nothing happens,” but the truth is an awful lot of life transpires for the Vietnamese sisters. However, that late summer vibe will lull viewers into a sort of listless bliss, just as it does to the characters. That would be Lee at work.

Lien’s parents died one month apart. That should be romantic, but the circumstances were complicated. Lien and her married sisters, Suong and Khanh have mostly come to terms with it. As a result, the family café bustles with activity as they prepare for the first feast. As usual, they tease and cajole their reluctant young brother Hai into helping. That is especially Lien’s M.O. She and Hai are roommates who always start they day together bantering, exercising, and dancing to Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground.

Frankly, Lien and Hai might be so close, they could be crowding out potential romantic interests. Still, their mornings certainly look like a lot of fun. In contrast, Suong and Khanh must manage highly imperfect spouses and suspicions of infidelity. In one case they are justified, but not the other. Some viewers might be frustrated with the lack of closure for these subplots (as well as others), but Vertical is rather scrupulously focused on the period between each memorial feast. It is a somewhat arbitrary time frame, but a significant one.

Good golly, just about every aspect of Vertical is visually arresting, starting with Lien and her ridiculously photogenic family, but also most definitely including Lee’s rich, verdant cinematography. It is the sort of film you just want to soak in, like a hot tub. Consequently, viewers face the potential danger of losing sight of Tran Nu Yên-Khê’s acutely sensitive and utterly seductive performance as Lien. Likewise, Nguyen Nhu Quỳnh and Le Khanh have moments of pure beauty as Suong and Khanh, respectively.

For those who find Vertical uneventful, we just don’t know what to tell you. The truth is you will be hard pressed to find another film that is this emotionally mature and yet so sexually charged. If that bores you, you’re on your own. Highly recommended for sophisticated viewers, The Vertical Ray of the Sun screens this Sunday (6/19) and Tuesday (6/28) as part of Luminosity at MoMA.

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