"The Vertical Ray of the Sun" is a wholly enveloping experience. Gentle, ravishingly beautiful and awash in everyday sensuality, it so intoxicates you with the elegance and refinement of its filmmaking that even noticing, let alone caring, whether it has a plot starts to seem beside the point.
Written and directed by Tran Anh Hung, "Vertical Ray" does in fact have a story line, one that investigates love, marriage and faithfulness as they play out in the romantic lives of three Vietnamese sisters, but no one will come out of this film compelled to deconstruct the narrative.
The lure of "Vertical Ray" is its sophisticated blending of delicate music, restrained acting and a seemingly casual but immaculate use of breathtaking color. Cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-Bin, who worked with Christopher Doyle on Wong Kar-wai's "In the Mood for Love," delivers just as much of a visual tour de force with this film's exquisite pastel shades.
"Vertical Ray" marks a return to form for writer-director Tran. His Oscar-nominated debut, "The Scent of Green Papaya," set in a luscious 1950s Vietnam he created in a French studio, was very much this kind of film. Tran followed that with the determinedly different "Cyclo," which depicted the chaos of today's Ho Chi Minh City to little effect except irritation.
With "Vertical Ray," Tran stays in the present and, for the third movie in a row, features his graceful wife, Tran Nu Yen-Khe. The setting this time is Hanoi, depicted in such an inviting way that it could incite a tourism boom of harried Westerners panting to experience a civilization that values leisure and beauty, a polite, unhurried earthly paradise where there's always time for jewel-like meals and everything is unself-consciously color-coordinated. This world may not really exist, but it is hard to resist on film.
"Vertical Ray" focuses on a close family of four siblings--three sisters and a brother--and opens as the alarm goes off in the small apartment Lien (Tran Nu Yen-Khe), the youngest sister, shares with brother Hai (Ngo Quang Hai).
The insinuating acoustic music of Lou Reed spills onto the soundtrack as curtains billow in the wind. Hai does chin-ups and Lien languidly stretches in bed and moves into a tai chi routine. Lien is the playful type, and she enjoys poaching on Hai's bed at night and teasing him about the way people think they're a couple when they're seen on the street.
Lien works in a cafe run by oldest sister Suong (Nguyen Nhu Quynh), who is married to Quoc (Chu Ngoc Hung), a photographer who prefers shooting plants to people because "they have a tranquillity you can't find in a face." Middle sister Khanh (Le Khanh) is married to a writer named Kien (Tran Manh Cuong), who is struggling to finish his first novel.
"Vertical Ray" opens on the anniversary of the mother's death and ends a month later on the anniversary of the father's. During that time, everyone finds their relationships tested when, among other happenings, Quoc takes a trip to snap some plants and Kien goes to Saigon to look into a suspicion the sisters have but don't want to believe that their beloved mother might have had an affair, or at least a flirtation.
Romantic entanglements ensnare all the sisters, but scenes that lack plot relevance are often as memorable as those that have it. A couple caught in the rain, the sisters giggling as they prepare a meal, a quiet moment between a husband and a wife in a lovely garden, all linger in the mind.
Helping sustain the film's soothing mood is the music of Vietnamese composer Ton That Tiet, the vivid sounds of birds, insects and water on the soundtrack and the way the lighting enhances that subtle use of color. A cooling drink in an exotic shade of green, a rain slicker in the most delicate light blue, the blades of a fan in a blue that's a bit darker, they all combine to gem-like effect.
"One should live where one's soul is in harmony," photographer Quoc says, adding: "Harmony can be a great consolation." "Vertical Rays of the Sun" demonstrates how great an asset it can be as well.
* MPAA rating: PG-13, for thematic elements and some sex-related material. Times guidelines: some adult subject matter.
'The Vertical Ray of the Sun'
Tran Nu Yen-Khe: Lien
Nguyen Nhu Quynh: Suong
Le Khanh: Khanh
Ngo Quang Hai: Hai
A Lazennec presentation of Canal Plus/Arte France Cinema/Hang Phim Truyen production, released by Sony Pictures Classics. Director Tran Anh Hung. Producer Christophe Rossignon. Executive producer Benoit Jaubert. Screenplay Tran Anh Hung. Cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-Bin. Editor Mario Battistel. Costumes Susan Lu. Music Ton That Tiet. Set decorator Benoit Barouh. Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes.
In limited release.