Magnificently poetic, dreamy even, the “Vertical Ray of the Sun” (Mua he chieu thang dung) is the third installment of Tran Anh Hung’s ‘Vietnam trilogy,’ each chapter employing a very different to lens to look back at different aspects of the country. Building on the success of “Scent of Green Papaya” and “Cyclo,” here Tran uses a series of idyllic narratives to gently lull the viewer into the everyday lives of three sisters in Hanoi.
The movie deftly illustrates the lives of three sisters as they live their lives in the Vietnamese capital, each one representing three different ages and shades of life. The oldest is reliable and committed to her marriage, but deep down she is desirous of sex. The second, fiercely loyal to her husband, is witty and imaginative, inspiring even. For the youngest, the director once again uses his wife (Tran Nu Yen Khe) as his muse. She is the most open minded of the sisters, fearless in the face of what are cloying social expectations. The sisters all idolize their parents’ marriage but these ideals area threatened when they sense their mother had had a secret lover, after her death.
Preparations for their mother’s memorial causes much turbulence, and the device allows the director to examine various Hanoi traditions, values and rituals, the details of which are always expressed through a poetic tenderness.
The cinematography is scorched by the brilliant Hanoi summer from beginning to end. We see peaceful corners and moments of Hanoi set against the flamboyant emotions of our characters as if under a summer rain.
While the women are the focus, the men sit together discussing pictures and future plans with a measured deliberate tone, while the women are pushed together to create a memorial banquet surrounded by sunlight and nature. Their seemingly idyllic relationships stand on the verge of stalemate when several turbulent truths are exposed, affecting the calm exteriors of their lives. Thing are not quite what they seem.
The world of what seems the most reliable couple in the group is shaken when they find out they are both cheating on each other. After her husband’s trip to Saigon, the second sister finds notes left by his mistress in his suit, breaking her belief in him. The film constantly probes superstition, love and desire while gently asking what can we really expect from relationships.
However, the film is less about the plot than subtle but significant non-verbal clues, and how humans respond to emotional information. Whether these women are languidly lying on wooden floors and chairs, or passing through fluttering curtains, the film’s aesthetic of dancing shapes, emphasizes the inner feelings of the, at times underwritten, female protagonists. Perhaps, this is Tran Anh Tung’s hidden talent.
A large number of the scenes are shot in close-up, the director forcing his audience to hone in on the details of his characters’ facial expressions, their eye movement or laughter, giving an intense, almost claustrophobic feeling.
Alongside colors, water is used to powerful metaphorical effect: the colorless liquid innocent and pure, yet erotic at the same time.
The cinematography is scorched by the brilliant Hanoi summer from beginning to end. We see peaceful corners and moments of Hanoi set against the flamboyant emotions of our characters as if under a summer rain. Besides the magnificent aesthetic of old Hanoi, different colors are used to metaphorical effect, alluding to the women’s lives. The room of the oldest sister is a dark ocean green perhaps showing her isolation, meanwhile in her sister’s room, the color red evokes love and desire. Conflicting passions run throughout the film.
Alongside colors, water is used to powerful metaphorical effect: the colorless liquid innocent and pure, yet erotic at the same time. We often see Tran’s characters using water be it in food preparation, or washing hair and hands, all playful and suggestive. Wordless, these actions trigger the emotions of both the characters and viewer.
While the film packs an emotional punch, it is often let down by a poor script. Tran is perhaps a stronger filmmaker when his characters are not talking and he lets his camera do the work, as in “Scent of Green Papaya.” Here the dialogue feels clunky and awkward, the Vietnamese lines like rocks on a smooth road, and the youngest daughter is unable to completely drop her French accent, making conversations feel unnatural. Often the lines are ones that are common in English, but not much heard in Vietnamese so they seem stilted and bizarre. It often feels like Tran was perhaps hoping for an international not Vietnamese audience.
Too often there is no clarity in what the director is trying to say, though it is likely he prefers it this way. Of the film’s strange title Tran has said: “I always choose titles that if you just hear them, they will not make sense; they should make as little connection to the content of the film as possible, that way the audience is less likely to guess the film’s content.” Often it feels like he wants to make films that do not entirely make obvious sense.
The film is a hard one to pin down, and Tran seems often wants to deliver a series of feelings and sense impressions: the heat of a hot summer in Hanoi, the peacefulness of preparing meals, or the feeling of floating on water. Yes, this is wishy-washy at times, but the film undeniably has heart and soul. Beautiful as a painting, tender as a poem, the picture is aided by the Trinh Cong Son (Vietnam’s Bob Dylan?) songs which play throughout the film. Though not a stellar picture, those with a love of Hanoi will have a particular fondness for many of the scenes here.