In Vietnamese director Bui Thac Chuyen’s new film, the cars navigating Hanoi’s flooded streets seem to float, unanchored and slow moving, giving the film its melancholy urban atmosphere and languid, restrained pacing. “Adrift,” the film’s English title, then, would seem fitting.
Yet for the two women at the heart of this film, awry and amiss may be more apt.
Duyen (Do Thi Hai Yen), for example, has made a point of tying herself down rather purposefully — the film opens during her wedding night to a handsome young(er) man she met three months ago. But the groom gets so wasted at his banquet that his doting mother must happily spend the night caring for him, all the while lecturing the bride about how to best pamper her new man. Commendably, the only thing her new husband, Hai, does well is hold down a job as a taxi-driver. So well, in fact, that he comes home tired and goes straight to sleep — oblivious to the gorgeous body waiting next to him. Charmed by his childlike innocence, but silently frustrated with his sexual neglect, Duyen goes to see Cam, a novelist sophisticate of a best friend.
Their talk reveals the nature of the film’s strength: its agonizing slowness, constraint and economy of words, though not of feeling. We meet Cam at her most cynical — not having attended the wedding, she says she prefers funerals. Duyen thanks her for a wedding gift, Cam promises a better one for the divorce. Under the dark humor, (and under the sheet which covers her body in steam) we sense the unspoken — Cam’s desire for her friend is futile, and it’s only making her more neurotic, more depressed. The sheet provides an entirely new filmic space — humid and dark, the director has found new ways of contrasting Cam’s stifled longing with Duyen’s open-aired declarations of simplicity and love. The cinematography — this is one of an increasing number of films digitally shot on the Red camera — holds more weight than the screenplay here, and makes the looks and look aways, of these characters far more hurtful than the verbal. The colors, like the city, are washed out and sullen, lighting comes from daylight, candlelight and shadows, while the low angles and the motion sustains a sense of the subdued, even as the drama flickers up.
The men of this film are of two types. The player: Cam’s questionable friend, Tho (Johnny Tri Nguyen) almost rapes Duyen, a first encounter that leaves her at once both traumatized and sexually alive, since her husband is forever the second type: The momma’s boy. Forever still a child, Hai starts hanging out with a raggedy, abused neighborhood girl who carries around a big teddy bear, while his wife is off at the beach with another man. That the men here aren’t well developed seems less a fault of the film than a characteristic of the narrow ways these men display their masculinity or express themselves.
The film adds subtle generational nuance when Duyen asks her grandmother about old hidden photos she’s found of her grandpa with other women. Her grandma nonchalantly shrugs this off and goes back to caring for the ailing old man. Meanwhile Duyen’s mother-in-law speaks of daughters being useless. Breaking up these traditional family shots are drunken chase scenes of teddy-girl and her father, who calls her a whore so often I can’t recall her real name.
The film, acclaimed by the usual festival circuit, has been branded as angsty, erotic arthouse fare, but sexuality alone is selling short what is at stake here, as is reducing it to some cultural exploration of sexual awakening in Asian women. To read it thus is to be adrift and amiss — the women here are strong and know what they want, but more than that, they know they inhabit spaces and situations that can’t deliver. In their own ways, they want more from their lovers, their families, their lives, than can be given — and so they stay quiet.