Based on short stories and a novel by Nguyen Thi Minh Ngoc, and with a script by her and Cuong Ngo (who obtained an honours degree in film from York University), Pearls of the Far East is a debut, full length art film with breath-taking cinematography by Mikhail Petrenko, a gently lyrical score by Alexina Louie and Alex Pauk, and a performance in the final tale by legendary Vietnamese actress Kieu Chinh who started her career in Saigon in 1957 before going on to act in films in India, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Taiwan. It is a subtle, leisurely work that slowly absorbs you as it spins seven short narratives about various permutations and configurations of love. The stories unfold like chapters from a novel, and they recall familiar existential stages of life—childhood, youth, maturity, and old age—as time and the seasons run in the background, and what a background it proves to be, with the natural beauty of Vietnam shown in a way that has not been matched even in most travelogues.
Although pearls figure literally in only some of the stories, each chapter of the visually beautiful film could be regarded metaphorically as a pearl in a single strand. And the leading female characters are pearls in themselves in terms of their loveliness and delicacy. The camera work of Mikhail Petrenko captures these figures with impressive facility, lingering on their skin and profiles, sometimes framing the women (young, middle aged, and older) as if they were art objects, but living, feeling ones, whose hearts beat with undeclared passion and whose souls and minds are mirrored in their gestures, silences, and actions.
Childhood is the first stage, and it is represented in the sweet but brief friendship of a boy, Lan (Huy Hoang), and a girl, Tho (Phuong Quynh), who meet in a village in the greenest part of summer, conducting their relationship in tall grass, in mud (where they play with dragonflies), by a river (sometimes crowded with ducks, sometimes traversed by boats with lazy bourgeois types under parasols), or on a hillock for kite-flying. He dreams of studying, getting a job, and helping his parents; she dreams of romance. Their idyll comes to an end when she has to leave for a different school in Saigon, and as the car carrying her away disappears along a long, winding road, he is left only with her memory and, perhaps, confusion about the sudden end to the idyll.
The dominant green tones in the landscape continue with the mountain and valley in the next chapter, where a young woman is entrusted with an important message for a widow whose son has died suddenly while on a geological expedition. The mother does not know her son has died, and mistakenly thinks that the messenger is his fiancée whom she needs to groom for marriage, but when she discovers the truth (a point that is made with succinct editing and close-ups), the impact is felt as much by the girl as by the mother. Ngo uses perfect emblems in the telling of this narrative (the son’s worn journal, the son’s ghost that appears to the girl, a beautiful bronze phonograph, metal gates opening like a breathing creature), and the brevity of the story is a wise thing, for it leaves you feeling as if you are suddenly suspended between hurt and compassion, mystery and the mundane.
I don’t wish to give the impression that the film is all delicate and tentative. The segment entitled “Blood Moon” is rife with eroticism as it tells of a sensual, sexual relationship (what turns out to be “forbidden” love) between a young man (a fisherman) and young woman who live by huge sand dunes near the sea. The script has minimal dialogue, and the narrative is superbly compressed in a structure of ravishing sensory images, such as the half-naked bodies of the attractive lovers (Ngo Thanh Van and buff-bodied Kris Duanphung), the huge sand dunes, crystal blue water, yellow ochre rocks streaked with coppery tones, soft breeze fluttering a skirt, a crown of flowers, a pearl necklace, underwater sequences, and important flashbacks.
The shock comes in the discovery about the true relationship of the couple near the end, but Ngo’s film seems to prefer understatement or elliptical suggestion. “The Gift,” for instance, shows how a lonely married woman (Nhu Quynh) (whose husband is carrying on a furtive love affair) meets and finds sexual excitement with a young photographer. The title sets off its own suggestions, for the woman’s arriving at Lao Cai was supposed to be the husband’s gift, though the narrative shows that the young man (Thai Hoa-Le) is her special gift, as is the scarf he buys her from street urchins. The ending is an abrupt form of closure, but “The Gift” is a sentimental vignette that works by its patient accumulation of details.
The screenplay is also not without satire, as the case of “Awakening” ensures. Here, an aging bourgeois spinster (enacted by Minh Ngoc Nguyen), who is the owner of a seamstress factory, seems to be in mourning for her six failed attempts at marriage. She has saved each of her coloured wedding dresses, each colour linked to a particular mood or development in her life. It is a poignant piece, given a melancholy core when the woman’s aged, blind mother wishes she can live to see her daughter married at last. At the end, after kissing the headless black half-statue of a male, the spinster performs an act of brave self-liberation by releasing a flaming arrow into the final wedding dress that she has set adrift on a raft in the sea.
However, there is no denying the film’s intrinsic composure that makes for a muted quality, as in “The Boat,” a romantic sequence that turns out to be perhaps the most abstract tale in the whole work. Graced with splendid art decoration by Tom Yarith Ker and, of course, the phenomenal cinematography of Petrenko, it is marred only by some very stiff, unconvincing dialogue as it tries to be a reverie on the ephemeral nature of love and beauty. The remaining chapters are more rooted in the mundane, though they are not without splendidly poetic moments of exquisite imagery and complicated feeling.
And it is the visual poetry, as well as the poetry of feeling, that distinguish this film. In the final tale, “Time,” the focus is on an aging actress (iconic Kieu Chinh) who lives with her mementoes of her youth. Her love is art, but her enemy is time, and we feel her loneliness (thanks to the winter setting—that, incidentally, was captured in Toronto) and the fact that there isn’t another human being presently in her life. She herself confesses that she has paid no attention to things around her, thereby exacerbating her loneliness. The entire film has by now progressed from childhood to old age and from summer to winter, and in the final sequence, where her face is painted like a mask, she smears the makeup, drawing black lines down her visage as if to signify not only the desecration of her beauty but to mark the disfiguring trail of time.
Every technical element of this film is a work of art in itself. The soundtrack (replete with flute, bamboo flute, harp, piano, violin, horn, drum, viola, and cello) rarely draws attention to itself, and the photography is superb. The individual stories resist explicit closure but, instead, invite you to complete them after a context, tone, and mood have been established. It is not a film for all tastes, but if you appreciate an art film, make sure you see this one. It honours Vietnam and its artists, and it also honours Canada, where many of its craftsmen have learned their crafts.
pic 1: Childhood