Dropped off on a crazily busy street of today’s Hanoi, you would find yourself trapped among streams of motorbikes running after you as if you were pushed into a violent video game that you have lost sight of the control button. Now the parching hot sun is burning over your head, making the whole city more like a giant pan on fire than anything else. That’s Hanoi, if you just see it plainly at the very first glance: busy, crazy, hot, polluted air, motorbikes, motorbikes and motorbikes. Now you hate it, and you want to go back home where a comfy sofa is waiting to take you back into its homey sweet arms. That’s a great idea, I gotta admit, but I also can guarantee you this, you have missed the most interesting thing about this city: its sophisticated and deep soul as a very weird charisma that has charmed a great many of other romantic souls.
Tran Anh Hung must be one of those souls. In his riveting art-house film Vertical Ray of the Sun, he depicts Hanoi in a way that reveals the city to the very core of its heart, and just clearly proves that the director’s love and understanding about Hanoi is by no means less than anyone living in it. The story centers upon a family of 3 sisters and one brother, following their problems in life. Looked from the surface, their life is as peaceful as a poem: running a classic Hanoi-style coffee house in the Old Quarter, gathering at nights to talk and sing, and spending hours in the beautiful gardens bathed in sunlight. But things are more complicated than that. The eldest sister, Suong (Nhu Quynh), lives with her husband and their little son in her parents’ old house. She is having a secret (and bizarre) affair with a mystery man, who she visits some times a month; they would make love, then cuddle in bed singing to each other; but she never talks to him, not even a word. Little does she know that her husband also has been cheating on her: he has a son with another woman who lives on a floating hut on the sea. The second sister, Khanh (Le Khanh), seems to be in a happy marriage with a writer; but we all know what it’s like to be married to an artist. Lien (Tran Nu Yen Khe), the youngest sister, lives with her elder brother, Hai, in an apartment; the two are often mistaken by neighbors as a married couple. Hai is a struggling actor, and Lien has a secret relationship with a boy she won’t tell.
I’ve seen four movies by Tran Anh Hung (Vertical Ray of the Sun, Scent of Papaya, Adrift, Norwegian Wood). One special thing about this talented director is that the tone he sets for his movies is very easy to recognize. When you see a film he made, you know it’s him. Vertical Ray of the Sun, like three other mentioned films, is in slow pace, with short (and sometimes awkward) conversations, a lot of longing stares, and a wonderful choice of music. The song used as a theme song in this movie, Trinh Cong Son’s Cuoi cung cho mot tinh yeu (Last words for a love affair) should be credited as a main cast. You won’t get over the rhythm of the song, or these lyrics, easily:
U thoi anh ve
Chieu mua giong toi
Bay gio em vui
Hai ban tay doi
Bay gio em vui
Hai ban chan moi
Thoi gian noi day
Bay gio em vui
Mot linh hon roi
Tinh yeu xu nay
(So you’re leaving/The storm is coming/ Now I’m enjoying myself/My arms are hungry/My feet are weary/All this time/ I’m enjoying myself/My soul is longing for/ A love in this place)
Tran Nu Yen Khe is no doubt the star of the movie. Other actors gave heart-touching performances, but Yen Khe was phenomenal. She is the most Vietnamese-looking and the sexiest woman I’ve ever seen on films – no wonder Tran Anh Hung has her as his muse. Despite the fact that she sounds a lot like a foreigner trying to speak Vietnamese (well, she is!), she is very believable as a young traditional girl who is very sexually innocent. Funny thing is that I’ve figured out why I was so impressed by The Dreamers and the relationship between the twins Theo-Isabelle depicted in that movie. Turns out it’s because I’d seen that before, in Vertical Ray of the Sun. In Vertical Ray, Lien has a very close relationship with her brother. Theirs is far from incest, but it has the romantic traits of two dreamer soul-mates getting together, and obviously the attraction of a male and a female family member (like, sons are naturally closer to moms, as much as daughters are usually apples in daddies’ eyes). It’s the kind of connection we wish to have with somebody in our life: cozy, comfortable and platonic.
Vertical Ray of the Sun is beautiful in every frame. You would be really amazed by the Hanoi as painted through Tran Anh Hung’s lens: it’s peaceful, exciting, surreal and dreamy; it’s the forgotten Hanoi that is only rewarded to ones that are looking for the dear land.