Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell

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Because it’s set in Vietnam, it’s easy if a bit crass to see Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell as a metaphysical Apocalypse Now, one man’s journey upriver in search of spiritual enlightenment.

Well, that’s most of the readers gone. For those who remain, this remarkable debut by Pham Thiên Ân is pretty much as already described, with the “Yellow Cocoon Shell”, according to Pham, standing for human attachment to baubles, trinkets and stuff in general. We are inside the Shell and the task life sets us is to break free.

It sounds Buddhist but in fact the vibe in this film is largely Catholic, which is how Pham was raised. There is a shared sense in both faiths that the life of the flesh is essentially meaningless. But regardless of whether the spiritual side of the film sets your curiosity aflame or not, miss this one at your peril. It is clearly the work of a master of visual stylistics.

The opening shot is completely gripping – a humid night at an open-air eatery where three friends are eating, drinking beer and discussing one of their number’s impending departure for a life in the mountains. You’ll regret it, one of them opines, there’s nothing up there and the search for meaning in life is pointless. Around them a mad bustle of people eating, hawkers trying to sell their wares, food arriving, football on the TV, humanity in a multitude. Pham is very good at people shots, but then he’s pretty good at everything.

But back to the open air, where the three friends’ evening is interrupted by the sound of a motorbike collision. It turns out one person is dead, that she is the sister-in-law of one of the guys, Thien (Lê Phong Vũ).

It’s the avowedly agnostic Thien we follow as he travels up-country, with his sister-in-law’s orphaned son Dao (Nguyễn Thịn), his nephew, in an attempt to re-connect the child up with Thien’s brother, Dao’s dad, who no one has seen for a long time.

Thien remembers kissing his girlfriend
Flashback: Thien and Thao kiss

The film is constructed as a series of instructive spiritual encounters, some of them communal (there are a number of Catholic masses), other’s individual. At one point Thien talks to the old guy who made his sister-in-law’s funeral shroud and who fought in the Vietnam War. At another he connects up with an old girlfriend, Thao (Nguyễn Thị Trúc Quỳnh), who has since become a nun. With a friend who seems at peace out in the countryside with his chickens. At yet another a wise old woman at a roadside stop.

Pham slides timelines around a touch, and occasionally introduces something that just didn’t happen – Thien is fantasising – but even when it’s firmly in the here and now this is a dreamy movie, reminiscent perhaps of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives in its melding of real and imagined. Trần Anh Hùng’s infatuation with image as image (though Pham’s are gauzier) seems also a possible influence, as does Robert Bresson’s distinctive way of using of sound and vision – one or the other is doing the heavy lifting but rarely both at the same time.

Lê Phong Vũ is a fine questing, questioning everyman Thien, but comes into his own as an actor towards the end, when he’s called on to externalise Thien’s internal struggle against despair and nihilism.

What does Thien learn? The eternal verities. Simple pleasures. Family. Holding a baby. Talking to a stranger. Connections, in short.

This might not amount to a hill of beans as a breakthrough philosophical position but this is a movie that’s really more about the journey than the destination, with Pham’s often static or tectonically creeping camera delivering one remarkable, beautifully composed vista after another.

Personally, I wish he’d stayed longer in Saigon – Pham is so good with the colours of the cityscape and superb with big, technically complex shots – but maybe that’s for the next time round. This film won him the Camera d’Or at Cannes, the award reserved for debuts. He’s in his early 30s. There’s time.

Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2024

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