Tran Anh Hung's beautiful meditation on family ties and family traumas, The Vertical Ray of the Sun, marks a captivating new chapter in the career of the writer/director who was the first to give Americans a glimpse of Vietnamese filmmaking. In 1994, Tran's The Scent of Green Papaya made its way here, and it was nothing less than a revelation — a brilliantly observed study of a servant girl who goes to work in Saigon in 1951 and develops a unique relationship with each member of the household. Drenched in rich colors and profound yet submerged emotions, the film opened a door to a world most of us had only imagined.
Tran's new film has the same serene surface and deliberate pace as Papaya, but by degrees the subject matter proves to be more discomfiting, for us and for the characters. As personal secrets are revealed, each of the people we meet must deal with life-changing decisions.
At the beginning, all is bliss. In present-day Hanoi, three lovely sisters meet in the cafe operated by the eldest of them to prepare a memorial banquet on the anniversary of their mother's death. While washing chickens and cutting shallots — simple scenes that unfold in sensual lushness, thanks to the director and to cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-Bin — the women begin reminiscing about their parents' marriage. It was seemingly perfect, ostensibly harmonious, but there remains the enduring mystery of a man named Toan, who may or may not have once been their mother's lover. In time, this discussion acts as a trigger, making way for startling insights into the sisters' own lives and the lives of their men.
Nothing is quite what it first seems. As in Papaya, appearances are slowly supplanted by realities; when the banquet is done, veils are delicately drawn away from the family to expose its mysteries and truths.
The youngest sister, Liên (played by Tran Nu Yên-Khê, the director's wife), lives with their brother, Hai (Ngô Quang Hai), and she is drawn to him in a rather unsisterly way. “We were made for each other,” she says, half in playfulness, half in lament. By the end, Lien must confront her fantasies and leave childhood behind. The middle sister, Khanh (Lê Khanh), learns she is pregnant and privately tells her husband, Kiên (Tran Manh Cuong), a blocked novelist who's struggling to finish his first book. Intrigued by the story of Toan, his late mother-in-law's youthful love, he travels to Saigon (the airline pilot announces the destination as “Ho Chi Minh City” — a blunt reminder of our own nation's bloody misadventures in Southeast Asia) and is promptly tempted in his hotel by a beautiful stranger. Upon his return, his wife discovers his untimely indiscretion: Lipstick scrawls on a pocketed business card usually suggest lust, do they not? In this case, they also spur a writer to finish his work.
This trouble seems insignificant compared to that which befalls the eldest sister, Suong (Nguyen Nhu Quynh), and her mate, a seemingly self-satisfied and superficially dull photographer called Quôc (Chu Ngoc Hung). As it happens, both of them are conducting serious affairs — she, cloaked in a vow of silence, in an afternoon trysting spot where rain patters on the roof, he on a remote island, where he has hidden away an entire second family. If devotees of Tran, the quietest, most fastidious of filmmakers, are searching for something uncharacteristically explosive (as they found, startlingly, in his absorbing 1995 film Cyclo, his homage to Vittorio De Sica's The Bicycle Thief), this would be it. Beneath the placid surface of Vertical Ray lurks betrayal and the suggestion of great violence.
But not even these traumas — or the crushing admissions of guilt that go with them — seem to perturb Tran. His films are rife with warbling birds, gurgling waters, and long, contemplative close-ups of green, trembling leaves, the visible signs of nature. But Tran also suggests that the hidden traumas of life are phenomena of nature too — the untidy products of our troubled human nature. It's a bewildering but deeply satisfying paradox, this constant, nearly silent collision in Tran's films of the visible world and the turbulent, unseen world. It is that collision, it can be argued, that lies at the heart of his ravishing magic and the quality that makes him one of the world's most fascinating filmmakers.