Tran Anh Hung’s third feature, after “The Scent of Green Papayas” (1993) and “Cyclo” (1995), is a serene, contemplative and exquisitely beautiful film about three sisters who keep secrets from one another. As an examination of the human desire to keep up appearances, the film, though specifically Vietnamese, has universal application. With its deceptively simple narrative and visual delicacy, pic should find niche arthouse bookings and plenty of festival play in coming months, as well as specialized TV exposure down the track. Though unveiled in Un Certain Regard section at Cannes, it could easily have been in competition, its presence reinforcing the strong Asian content of the 2000 event.
Unlike Tran’s earlier films, which were set in Ho Chi Minh City, this one unfolds in Hanoi, though mostly in interiors. Suong (Nguyen Nhu Quynh), the eldest sister, runs a restaurant in the city and employs her youngest sister, 23-year-old Lien (Tran Nu Yen Khe), as a waitress. The middle sister, Khanh (Le Khanh), who is newly pregnant and blissfully happy in her married life, joins the others and their brother, Hai (Ngo Quang Hai), at a celebration to mark the anniversary of their mother’s death. At this small gathering in Suong’s restaurant, the sisters are seen to be close, exchanging details about their lives, seeking one another’s advice. But this apparent complicity conceals the fact that each sister has a secret which she keeps from her siblings.
Suong’s husband, Quoc (Chu Hung), is a photographer employed by the Botanical Society of Hanoi; he travels all over the country photographing native flora. But Quoc’s lengthy absences aren’t always explained by his work, and, in fact, he has a second wife and family far from the city.
Khanh’s husband, Kien (Tran Manh Cuong) is a writer researching a book set in Ho Chi Minh City. He is also away from home a lot, and Khanh begins to suspect he may have a mistress in the southern city.
The easygoing, romantic Lien lives with her brother. They enjoy an unusually close, flirtatious relationship, and she’d like to find a man just like him. In the meantime, brother and sister spend a great deal of time together and even, apparently innocently, share a bed on occasion.
The film covers the period of a few weeks, during which the relationships of the three sisters undergo upheaval and renewal. Though the lives of the siblings have soap-opera-ish elements, Tran’s serene handling of the narrative threads proves entrancing.
Visually, the film is exceptionally lovely, particularly in its rich color scheme. Cinematographer Mark Lee and production designer Benoit Barouh have created highly seductive images and settings.
Ensemble performances are deft, with Tran Nu Yen Khe a real charmer as the sweetly sexy Lien. A beautiful low-key music score by Ton That Tiet, and songs in both Vietnamese and English (latter including tracks by the Velvet Underground and Lou Reed) enhance this exquisite film.