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The Vertical Ray of the Sun (Anh Hung Tran) 2001 

I was a big fan of Anh Hung Tranís deceptively simple, visually sumptuous political allegory The Scent of Green Papaya, so I went into his The Vertical Ray of the Sun with heightened expectations (I havenít yet seen his Cyclo). Again, heís made a film that has an insidious way of making you think that itís terribly quaint, then surprises you with its grander schemes. Set in a hazy dream version of Hanoi, Sun establishes a world where muffled secrets and soft whispers are the only suggestions that the ties that bind in its world are far more tenuous than they might appear. Much depends on what is left unsaid here, and since it takes the audience some time to piece together the unstated, it takes a while for any real drama to unfold.  

Thatís fine though, because many of the smaller pleasures that Tran offers up are worth our time. Few movies adequately portray any sort of laziness, since it requires the antithesis of narrative action, but here itís on stunning display. Cast in a hot summerís funk, these characters often lounge about too tired to do much. Their nights are sleepless and long due to the overbearing weather, and that lack of sleep leads to too much wandering of the mind. Since the film immaculately shot by Mark Lee Ping-bin (In the Mood for Love, Flowers of Shanghai), some of the minute details of their lives that he highlights seem momentous components of them. A recurring bit in which two of the ensembleís cast rise from bed to the lazy, detached rhythms of Lou Reed is the most obviously sensual of these moments, but throughout there are tiny pleasures observed. The director creates the impression that life is a kind of ideal in his version of Vietnam. 

Of course, any ideal set up in a movieís first act usually fractures by the end, and thereís not really an exception to that rule here. What is surprising is that Tran generally manages to draw our attention to the flaws in these characters without artificially drumming up crises. The calm humility present here allows us to be moved by the melodramatic aspects of the work more than they might usually. The idyllic nature of the film doesnít really shatter here so much as it stretches to its limit. The acting is uniformly solid, with no character emerging as a lead, and technically, the film is top notch. If itís all a tad bit distancing (even while itís simultaneously intimate), itís probably required to achieve the peculiar affect that Tran does.  

*** 

02/01/02 

Jeremy Heilman