Vietnamese helmer Bui Thac Chuyen's 2001 docu concerned the million tons of unexploded munitions still killing and wounding civilians in Vietnam. He treats the same topic but from a very different angle in his first fiction feature "Living in Fear," a black comedy about landmines that flirts with outright slapstick.

Vietnamese helmer Bui Thac Chuyen’s 2001 docu concerned the million tons of unexploded munitions still killing and wounding civilians in Vietnam. He treats the same topic but from a very different angle in his first fiction feature “Living in Fear,” a black comedy about landmines that flirts with outright slapstick. Set in the aftermath of unification, pic’s sadsack hero, shuttling between two wives plus assorted offspring in two different villages, finds dismantling bombs less daunting than dealing with his in-laws. Nimble juggling of a serious subject, unexpected comic twists and an eminently likeable cast could win this curio a limited arthouse slot.

In 1975, at the close of the Vietnam War, Tai (Tran Huu Phuc) lives in fear. Convinced that the victorious North Viet Cong will swoop down and slaughter all those who fought for the South, Tai is astounded when nothing of the sort happens: The green-clad soldiers merely bustle about to clear new land for the relocation of villagers, including himself, his wife Ut (Mai Ngoc Phuong) and their baby.

Still, he is afraid, his anxiety taking the form of a morbid fascination with the mines that salt the earth. Skull and cross-bone signs warn of fenced-off areas not yet swept, with explosions marking the passage of wandering cows and unwary passersby in even supposedly safe zones.

Denied official status as a sapper because of his past political allegiance, Tai clandestinely supplements his meager earnings by black-market trafficking in barbed wire and defused mines, the fruit of digging in forbidden areas by torchlight. The economic incentive for Tai’s dangerous doings is perhaps only an alibi for the constantly renewed, addictive experience of triumph over terror.

The deeper source of that terror becomes apparent when Tai goes back to visit his older, serenely beautiful other wife Thuan (Ngo Pham Hanh Thuy) and their two children in his hometown some 20 miles away. Though welcomed by his loving family, his arrival triggers a physical assault from his brother-in-law, a communist official, who sees Tai as a womanizing bigamist who has wronged his sister and is a blot on the family’s revolutionary escutcheon.

But soon, Tai’s two wives are both struggling to give birth in adjacent hospital beds while Tai flutters helplessly between them in farcical “Micki and Maude” mode. Tai’s unquestioned acceptance of his dual domestic situation, akin to his obsession with mines that are strewn around his house like discarded toys, represents a strange kind of absurdist liberation, a space beyond fear — a state of mind shared by his newfound drinking buddy, the professional mine-sweeper Nam (Mai Van Thinh).

Bui, who snagged Vietnam’s director Golden Kite for “Fear,” has filled his film with deftly sketched characters and effortlessly maintains the pic’s oddball tone, a legacy of 400 years of continual warfare.

Tech credits are pro.

Living In Fear

Vietnam-Japan

Production

A Vietnam Feature Film I/NHK Broadcasting Co. (Japan) production. Produced by Dang Tat Binh. Directed by Bui Thac Chuyen. Screenplay, Bui, Nguyen Thi Minh Ngoc.

Crew

Camera (color), Hoang Tan Phat; editor, Bui Thac Quan; music, Bui Thac Quan; art director, Pham Quang Vinh; sound (Dolby Digital), Bahn Bac Hai. Reviewed at Montreal World Film Festival (Focus on World Cinema), Aug. 30, 2006. Running time: 109 MIN.

With

Tran Huu Phuc, Mai Van Thinh, Dang Thuy My Uyen, Mai Ngoc Phuong, Ngo Pham Hanh Thuy. (Vietnamese dialogue)

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