Vinh Son's "Moon at the Bottom of the Well" reflects hope, desperation and ambiguity in modern Vietnam
Happiness proves illusory in the slow-moving Vietnamese drama Trang noi day gieng (Moon at the bottom of the well). Director Nguyen Vinh Son examines love, unfaithfulness, desperation and the spirit world in the critically acclaimed film.
The story follows a young Vietnamese woman, Hanh, who lives with her family in the former imperial capital of Hue. A childless and fastidious high school teacher, Hanh finds herself unable to have children with her husband Phuong. In a striking performance by award-winning actress Hong Anh, we watch Hanh willingly allow her husband to have a child with another woman to fulfill her mother-in-law's wish: a grandson to continue on the family line. But Hanh comes to realize that her husband and his family have taken advantage of her love. Alone and desperate, she finds solace in the world of the dead.
"I wanted Hanh's tragedy to be set in the old capital of Hue, where traditions - often backward ones - dominate everyday life. People from Hue are known for their sensitivity, gentleness and also for their deep connections to their ancestors," says director Vinh Son.
With local mysticism prompting pivotal plot points, the picture appears intent on showing the "real" Vietnam, wrapped in spiritualism, with ancient houses and family alters playing large parts in the film.
Son says Hong Anh was perfect for the part, even though she didn't speak with a Hue accent.
"I'm from Hue, so I wasn't very happy to have my leading woman speaking in southern accent, but Hong Anh was still the best actress for this character.
"She successfully interprets the heart and soul of Hue women, even their mannerisms," says the filmmaker.
Son's cinéma vérité approach to shaman sequences jars the audience in juxtaposition with the rigid art direction of the central melodrama. Sharp compositions reveal the splendid scenery of Hue. The cinematographers must have enjoyed shooting the film.
Son said he wanted to focus on the "feelings" and elicit "affectionate reactions" to Hanh's heartbreaking story. "We tell you a simple story with plain characters, but we want to know if your heart is deep enough to ââ‚¬Ëœread' Hanh's inner workings."
Adapted from the novel of the same name by Tran Thuy Mai, Moon's characters are slightly less miserable and slightly more good-willed than the original material.
"In the story, Hanh realized that everything was plotted by her husband's mistress, but I decided to leave out that detail because I wanted the audience to see that Phuong and Thu [the mistresses] were actually good people.
"Phuong represents the majority of people - myself included - who are always trying to lead a righteous life but scheme a bit to get by."
But the film still evokes a dark picture of womanhood and destiny.
"They [women like Hanh] devote their lives to their family and don't get what they deserve in return. In the film, Hanh loses her belief in humanity but finds happiness and comfort in the spirit world. Reality fades away when people loose their connections to other people and stop communicating," says Son.
The film was shot with small, consumer-grade cameras, and frequently features long takes from the back of a scooter. Critics have noted similarities between Son's work and the technique used in Cu va chim Se Se (Owl and the Sparrow) by the Vietnam -born American-French director Stephane Gauger.
Hong Anh's outstanding performance won her the Murh Award for Best Actress in the Asia/Africa category at the 2008 Dubai International Film Festival in February.
Earlier this month, the beautifully haunting film picked up a Silver Kite in the Best Picture category at the Canh dieu vang (Golden Kite) national film awards.
The Institute of Vietnamese Culture and Education in New York has invited Son to introduce the film to students at Cornell, Yale, Harvard and Princeton at the end of this month, the director says. He will discuss the picture with the audiences after each screening.
Born in 1953 in Hue, Nguyen Vinh Son grew up during the Vietnam War. He started his career as a photographer before moving into film. Having directed films for Vietnamese television, he also helmed features, including Tuoi tho du doi (Fierce Childhood) in 1991, and the TV series Dat Phuong Nam (Song of the South) in 1997, which won a number of prizes and awards at national film festivals.
Son spent most of his life in the southern metropolitan capital of Ho Chi Minh City. He says he's always wanted to use film to capture "the essence of a changing society." Some have said that while Moon is often haunting or bizarre, its brilliance is also a love song to Hue.
The film showed at the Busan International Film Festival in the Republic of Korea in August and the 37th International Film Festival Rotterdam 2008 in the Netherlands in February. Son organized a small exhibit about Vietnam's temples at the request of the festival organizers in Rotterdam. He brought several items for the exhibit directly from Hue.
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