BackArts & Culture » Film & TV » Review: ‘Bên Trong Vỏ Kén Vàng’ Is a Soul-Searching Mission in the Lâm Đồng Mist

Review: ‘Bên Trong Vỏ Kén Vàng’ Is a Soul-Searching Mission in the Lâm Đồng Mist

On the pastures of slow cinema where Andrei Tarkovsky, Tsai Ming-liang and Theo Angelopoulos reside, Phạm Thiên Ân's debut feature, Bên Trong Vỏ Kén Vàng (Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell), has made its mark as a notable entry for its distinctly Vietnamese vistas, tones and essence.

To see myself crying while watching Bên Trong Vỏ Kén Vàng — which Ân is credited as director, writer and editor — is something I never thought was possible. When the film's lead, Thiện (Lê Phong Vũ), indulges an elderly woman (NSƯT Phi Điểu) in a chat about presence and reincarnation, all I could do was let the tears run. Maybe it was because of Madame Điểu's delivery, a perfect balance between impassioned and dignified that convinced me that everything is more reality than senility. Maybe it was because she echoed my late bà ngoại's belief that a person's return to this harsh plane after they have exited it, should that happen, could be a chance to save others from hardship.

Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell is an expansion of Phạm Thiên Ân's previous award-winning short.

In a way, the newest Caméra d'Or winner Bên Trong Vỏ Kén Vàng is a return. The expansion of the 2019 short film Ân made, 14-minute Hãy Tỉnh Thức Và Sẵn Sàng (Stay Awake, Be Ready) won an award at Cannes as well. Yet, in the Bảo Lộc native's second and lengthier exploration of his world, more details are available. This version of the motorbike crash now specifies who has died, Thiện's sister-in-law Hạnh, and who has survived, Hạnh's young son Đạo (Nguyễn Thịnh). This version now has a proper central perspective, introduced in a tragicomic manner embedded in so many of life's designs — Thiện has to stop his massage session short of its “happy ending” because of the call about the accident.

Phạm Thiên Ân (middle) is a Bảo Lộc native, so he decided to base the story in his home province.

I must admit, explaining this film is not easy. Attempts to simplify and provide clarity can also be means to reduce and demystify it. There's a flow, simultaneously factly and divine, across all these following points, but I have to break it up so it might make sense: Thiện's journey from Saigon to Lâm Đồng Province to return Hạnh's ashes prompts him to relive matters that can make, or even have made, him somewhat aimless and reserved. He finds himself in an environment where faith is strong and the people's investment in it is unwavering. He again sees his girlfriend, Thảo (Nguyễn Thị Trúc Quỳnh), but in the robes of a nun. He also finds out where his brother, Đạo's father, is located.

It's best to enter Bên Trong Vỏ Kén Vàng equipped with the connotations behind the transformation a cocoon undergoes, as well as Ân's implication behind the imagery; he told French newspaper RFI in Vietnamese that the pupa within is “similar to a person's soul.” This is because Ân has really focused on the searching aspect of Thiện's soul-searching. This, in turn, validates how the endpoints of plot threads can be absent or undefinable. It even embeds time's immunity to manipulation to the runtime. Through Ân's vision, I get to see that, while Thiện and Đạo are the film's emotional hooks and the setting's enlargers, its anchor is in the navigating of concepts that humans have understood or have yet to. Perhaps that would explain why when Đạo asks Thiện where his mother is now, Đinh Duy Hưng's camera doesn't focus on nephew and uncle but instead the luminous hands of the alarm clock.

Thiện (Lê Phong Vũ) embarks on a journey to deliver his sister-in-law's ashes from Saigon to Lâm Đồng.

Speaking of the camera, I'm of the opinion that it also does more than its brethren in more conventional films. It doesn't just observe, but also gathers life. Per foreign critics and previews abroad, Bên Trong Vỏ Kén Vàng is an Eden of long takes, some featuring the most delicate tracks or pans as if they are imitating the winds of Vietnam's ethereal highlands. But even if the camera prefers to be stationary, it understands that dynamism and energy still exist through other bystanders, sounds and naturalism. Hưng's cinematography seems to be capturing existence as opposed to scenes.

Consequently, it feels apt to call everything that makes up Bên Trong Vỏ Kén Vàng — from technical aspects to its narrative themes — as “vessels” more than “components,” as they seem so willing to become secondary to grander, yet-established concepts. This seems to correspond better with the film's vision and an awareness of a higher power that, the closer to the end of the 182 minutes, I stop rationalizing and just accept. It's not that I have given up, but instead, I'm listening to the film. It seems to be advising me to be humbled by greater forces, named and unnamed or seen and unseen.

Catholic paraphernalia is often spotted in the movie, even though Yellow Cocoon focuses more on spirituality and faith than religion.

Does this necessarily make the film religious in design? Not necessarily, even when figures of Mary, Jesus and crosses are prevalent. In a memorable shot that might also be a nod to Tarkovsky's also nature-rich Solaris, a son of God figurine, submerged, is seen resting beneath brushing grass blades. There's also the feeling that, despite heavenly presences on walls at ceremonies, on shelves, above doors and the like, none of our characters has an overt or devoted connection to them.

This “giving in” nature also allows the illusory to cohabit and gain prominence. In one stunning sequence that epitomizes Bên Trong Vỏ Kén Vàng's dedication to aural excellence, Thiện rouses himself from sleep and wanders around under the heavy rain and darkness. Is this still Lâm Đồng, or a drenched purgatory? A camera that normally stays or trails now moves as if sentient. Is it as confused and exhausted as Thiện? Then comes respite, assuming the form of a tree with white butterflies as its leaves and flowers. Is this a variant of the unburnt bush that Moses comes across? The film doesn't answer this, it just moves on. 

Bên Trong Vỏ Kén Vàng might not appeal to casual viewers due to its long running time and slow pace.

Bên Trong Vỏ Kén Vàng will alienate viewers because of its respectful ambiguity. They might wonder why Ân seems to adore the bumps and sounds along the road that surround Thiện's Honda Astrea more than the ride's point or resolution. They might register the elderly lady's words as, as Thiện was warned, elderly speak. I can't fault them for these interpretations, as the film does not ease itself into the deeper matters that the footage truly represents. Unlike the also lengthy Japanese Oscar winner Drive My Car, that also deals with deciphering one's place in life, everything in Yellow Cocoon, but especially its characterization, starts out as deep and naturally contemplative. In his performance as Thiện, I feel that Vũ shifts between uncertain and passive, as if it's the result of him being ever-prepared for the moment the camera and narrative focus on something else besides him. But when I pick up on the idea that Thiện is meant to be an avatar of Ân, Vũ's acting makes sense. As mentioned earlier, Thiện has been on a search, and not once has life stopped to confirm, deny, explain or guide him after he has gained or lost a thing. With that in mind, what gets portrayed is more human being than dramatic character.

Overall, Bên Trong Vỏ Kén Vàng gives me more confidence to interpret the gray that characterizes life. I hope its appreciators will feel the same, even if they might be hard to find. Aside from being a captivating and heartfelt experience, the film allows me to feel fine to never know where a stream starts and ends; I can just lie in it, with both ears underwater — just like Thiện — and know that there is a flow. Sometimes it's enough, the ability to view much of the world free from absolutes, from what one “do know” and “don't know.” Seeing as reality has yet to open itself to this notion, could this be the hardship my bà ngoại was referring to? If I do return, let me be your hero and break you out of the limitations that are cocooning you.

Bên Trong Vỏ Kén Vàng hits theaters in Vietnam starting from August 11.

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