Review: ‘The Eleventh Child’

(Vietnamese dialogue)

(Vietnamese dialogue)

Directed by a Chinese filmmaker educated in France, produced by French, Canadian and Vietnamese interests, featuring a mostly Vietnamese cast headed by a Japanese actor, shot in Vietnam by a mostly French crew but set primarily in China, “The Eleventh Child” is exactly the cultural mishmash its origins suggest. The strategy here, seen in other French-produced pics of late, involves using Third World locales and Western tech skills and backing to make exotically flavored art films for Western auds. But this concoction reeks of inauthenticity. Though lavish in its production values, pic is also turgid and uninvolving; its prospects are likely confined to fests and Francophile art sites.

Genre-wise, pic’s story begs to be described as ersatz folklore. Tang the 11 th (Akihiro Nishida) leaves the town where he runs a restaurant and returns to his native village on hearing that his older brother, Tang the First (Tapa Sudana), is seriously ill. What the younger brother doesn’t realize is that his mission of mercy will lead him straight into a trap.

Located in a remote, mountainous area, the village has long been plagued by leprosy, and the villagers harbor an ancient superstition that a remedy will be produced only when one of their families gives birth to five sons and five daughters, a happenstance that somehow will allow them to kill the big fish that lives in the nearby Lake of Heaven; the fish’s flesh, in turn, is supposed to cure leprosy. As luck would have it, Tang the 11th already has five sons and four daughters, and his wife is pregnant again.

Helmer Dai Sijie, who co-scripted with Nadine Perront, elaborates on this premise in a way that’s short on drama and recognizable situations and long on explication, references to events that happened years before, mystical mumbo-jumbo and villagers running back and forth between the lake, the village and a mine shaft, where some of the action is set.

Pic is expertly mounted in every tech sense, with Guy Dufaux’s handsome camerawork meshing nicely with Dai’s expansive visual sense. Perfs are also ably brought off. The problem, from first till last, is all in the script, which gives no indication that its events connect meaningfully with anything in the real world.

There’s no sense that this village and its beliefs reflect any actual culture , nor is there a hint that the tale’s action is meant to symbolize or comment on contemporary reality in Asia. Lacking both a concrete ethnography and imaginative resonance, pic plays out like an opaque and pointless history pageant, expertly choreographed but devoid of passion and purpose.

The Eleventh Child

(DRAMA -- FRENCH-CANADIAN-VIETNAMESE)

Production

A Paris New York (Paris) production in association with Max Films (Montreal), La Sept Cinema (Paris), the Film Studio of the Interior Ministry of Vietnam (Hanoi). (International sales: M6 Droits Audiovisuels, Neuilly-sur-Seine, France.) Produced by Claude Kunetz, Marc Piton. Co-producer, Roger Frappier. Directed by Dai Sijie. Screenplay, Dai, Nadine Perront. Camera (color), Guy Dufaux; editor, Marie Castro; music, Jean-Marie Senia; production designer, Christian Marti; sound, Claude La Haye. Reviewed at World Film Festival, Montreal (competing), Sept. 2, 1998. Running time: 91 MIN.

With

Tang the 11th ..... .Akihiro Nishida Tang the First ..... Tapa Sudana Wife of Old Tang ..... Nguyen Minh Chau Wife of Young Tang ..... Nguyen Hoa Thuy Rice Skin ..... Trinh Nguyen Chan Cuong Little Horse ..... Phan Anh Tuan
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