The wispy fabric of the traditional ao dai worn by Vietnamese women is the sturdy material holding “The White Silk Dress” together. Saga spanning the years 1954-66 gets off to a rocky start but comes home strong as it charts the catastrophic effect of war on a peasant family. U.S. trained commercials and musicvideo director Huynh Luu makes a mostly promising feature bow here with this Pusan world preem. A solid fest run is indicated, with offshore commercial life likely to be restricted to specialized tube dates.
Setting is picturesque town of Ha Dong in central Vietnam, immediately prior to the collapse of French colonial rule. Working for the local puppet governor, hunchback Gu (Nguyen Khanh Quoc) has eyes for servant girl Dau (Trong Anh Ngoc). The feeling’s mutual, but without the means to marry in the accepted sense, Gu gives his “bride” the precious ao dai he’s been carrying since childhood. Betrothed in their own eyes, the couple take flight in the aftermath of his employer’s assassination and subsequent French reprisals.
Shifting somewhat awkwardly through the following dozen years, narrative finally settles down in the mid-’60s with the couple making an unsustainable living as mussel sellers in the Southern seaside town of Hoi An. Desperate to give her daughters the ao dais required to attend school, Dau turns to part-time work as a wet nurse. In scenes that are not easily forgotten, her breasts are suckled not by a baby but by a sickly old rich man in his bizarre, purpose-built chamber.
Proceedings pick up markedly once the husband discovers his wife’s secret means of raising money. Weaving the domestic disharmony and gradual encroachment of combat into the area leads to a powerhouse set-piece in which the local school comes under aerial fire. In editing rhythm and shot composition, sequence immediately recalls the seaside village bombardment in “Apocalypse Now,” but here the camera lingers far longer, and to deeply moving effect, in the devastating wake. At packed screening caught, most audience members were in tears.
With a luminous central perf by “Bride of Silence” star Trong Anh Ngoc as the resilient Dau, and utterly charming turns by the youngsters playing her spirited daughters, pic eventually resonates as a tribute to the suffering and generosity of Vietnamese women symbolized by the ao dai‘s cultural significance.
Apart from the opening passages in Ha Dong and the odd dream sequence, vast bulk of the film is presented in desaturated tones. Filmmaker’s intent to steer away from the magnificent hues associated with much of contempo Vietnamese cinema is in keeping with subject matter, though the relentless blue-gray palette does suck some of the life from these vibrant characters along the way.
Minus sound design that could benefit with some beefing up, rest of tech work is OK.