"Westerners, when they see films by minority filmmakers, are always looking for the sociological aspect, or the anthropologic aspect, or the ethnological aspect," says Tran Anh Hung, the award-winning Vietnamese French director of "The Vertical Ray of the Sun," which opens today in Los Angeles.
"That's an insult," Tran declares. "I can't be expected to provide news reports of Vietnam. For that there are newspaper and television."
While his films are certainly anchored in reality, he says his intention is to capture the essence of what he perceives to be Vietnam, the homeland he rediscovered as an adult. Born there in 1962, he left at age 4, when his family moved to Laos. Eight years afterward, they emigrated to France, where Tran later studied cinematography at the Ecole Nationale Superieure Louis Lumiere. Today the director, a slight man with floppy black hair, speaks French fluently, with the soft-spoken precision of a well-educated Frenchman.
It was his first film, "The Scent of the Green Papaya," that led him back to Vietnam. In 1991, he and his producer and now longtime collaborator, Christophe Rossignon, visited the country to investigate shooting the film there. However, they were put off by the lack of qualified technicians and photo labs, and found a financing deal back in France. So they ended up shooting the film entirely in a French studio. "Papaya," a fairy tale of a story about a humble young servant girl who grows up to win the heart of the son of the household, was admittedly quite romanticized. After all, it was based on memories, and as Tran notes, "memory is selective."
Premiering in Cannes in 1993, the film won the Camera d'Or, the prize for the best first feature, and later a Cesar, the French equivalent of the Oscar, in the same category. Afterward, Tran was determined to make his next film in Vietnam. This was "Cyclo," a harrowing account of the corruption of the innocent in modern-day Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, that won the Golden Lion Award at the 1995 Venice Film Festival.
In that film, a hapless pedicab driver gets robbed of his vehicle--and thus his livelihood--and falls in with a bunch of violent small-time gangsters. The film includes brutal scenes of beating and torture. Janet Maslin wrote in the New York Times, "After the elegant tranquillity of Tran Anh Hung's first film . . . the tone of his 'Cyclo' comes as a shock."
Some saw it as a commentary on the wayward state of Vietnam today, but to this Tran replies calmly but firmly, "It's an insult to me to say that it's a documentary about the negative aspects of modern Vietnam. It's a work of art; it's not a work of sociology. What interests me is the way of seeing things. One could say it's a documentary on the emotions modern Vietnam evokes in me."
"Vertical Ray of the Sun" was made in the same spirit, although this time he has shifted his point of view to sleepy Hanoi. "As far as the story is concerned, it's not a very complicated matter for me," says Tran, who, as usual, wrote the script. "I begin a film only when I feel the rhythm in myself. None of my films began with an anecdote or a desire to tell a certain story."
In this case the rhythm is languid. The story revolves around three sisters. The oldest, Suong (Nguyen Nhu Quynh), runs a small coffee shop, while her husband, Quoc (Chu Ngoc Hung), is some kind of budding photographer. It turns out that both are carrying on affairs on the side. Meanwhile, middle sister Khanh (Le Khanh) is happily married to Kien (Tran Manh Cuong), a writer trying to finish his first novel. Lien (Tran Nu Yen-Khe, the director's wife) the youngest sister, is still sharing an apartment with her younger brother but beginning to feel the needs of her womanhood.
The sisters get together and prepare food and talk. The men get together and smoke and talk. Students gather in coffee shops and talk. Between there's a lot of ruminating--about food, about faithfulness, about togetherness and loneliness.
"In a way the three women represent three moments of marriage in the life of a woman," Tran says. "The youngest is just discovering men and sex. The second has just gotten married and is expecting a child, so she's living a luminous moment when she believes nothing could possibly harm her. The third sister has accumulated conjugal problems--there are issues of desire and fidelity.
"What particularly interests me is how all this happens in a Confucian world, where the idea of harmony is so important."
The hard-driving rhythm of "Cyclo" is quite opposite the soft melody of "Vertical Ray," reflecting the fact that the former takes place in Ho Chi Minh City and the latter in Hanoi. "The two cities are completely different," Tran says. "Saigon is a metropolis; Hanoi is a village where everyone knows everyone."
The loose feel of "Vertical Ray," however, belies the amount of planning that went into crafting the color and texture of the work. From the beginning, Tran and set designer Benoit Barouh decided to use only materials found in the country and not to import anything, and to emphasize the colors green, yellow, and blue-green. "My use of color must totally reflect the city which is Hanoi," he says.
Nowadays Tran visits Vietnam about once a year. "When I discovered Hanoi, I found something I could not feel in Paris--the possibility of harmony that comes from the fact that people are available. I can sit with a friend in a cafe in Hanoi and not say anything for an hour because we have time."