Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s 1876 short story “A Gentle Creature,” about the beautiful young wife of a middle-aged pawnbroker who escapes her loveless marriage by committing suicide, has been elegantly transported to contemporary Vietnam in “Gentle.” Distinguished by fine performances from Dustin Nguyen as the controlling husband and talented debutante Nguyen Thanh Tu as the wife whose emotional isolation gradually becomes too much to bear, this universally accessible examination of spiritual disconnect within a marriage ought to enjoy a successful fest run and has theatrical niche prospects across the Vietnamese diaspora. Release details for Vietnam and North America are pending.
The latest in a long list of adaptations of the source material, which includes Soviet helmer Aleksandr Borisov’s “Krotkya” (1960) and Robert Bresson’s first color feature, “Une femme douce” (1969), “Gentle” reps a major change of pace for scripter-helmer Le-Van Kiet following the horror outing “House in the Alley” (2012), a box office smash in Vietnam. Closely following Dostoyevsky’s text, Kiet launches the proceedings with a startling closeup of Linh (Tu) as she plunges to her death in an alleyway. As grieving husband Thien (Nguyen) lingers over her corpse, the story of their courtship and marriage begins to unfold.
Introduced as a man of precision and steady temperament, Thien runs a pawnshop in Vietnam’s southern Mekong Delta region. Thien engages in little conversation with his customers and is of no mind to haggle over prices, and his initial contact with Linh takes place in silence. Arriving at his shop with some of the jewelry she keeps hidden in a tin, Linh simply presents the goods and takes Thien’s offering without question.
After Linh shows up several more times and engages in polite conversation, Thien becomes obsessed with the girl, an exquisite beauty half his age. Enlisting his housemaid, Xuan (Bich Hang), to perform private detective duties, Thien discovers Linh is an orphan living in impoverished circumstances with her aunties Giang (Hong Thy) and Thom (Kieu Trinh). A cruel pair who have nine children between them and believe that working as a massage girl in the big city is a worthy career choice for their shy niece, Giang and Thom are seeking to arrange Linh’s marriage to Nam (Bui Vinh Hai), a sleazy butcher with two failed marriages behind him and a reputation for domestic violence.
Armed with all this information, Thien conducts his courtship of Linh in a manner that’s more like the carefully considered acquisition of a shiny new asset than the declaration of consuming love it ought to be. At first assisting Linh to write a classified ad she hopes will lead to employment, and following up with an offer to work at his shop, Thien eventually makes an offer too good for Linh to refuse given the unappealing alternatives. Soon after the passionless physical consummation of their marriage, it becomes clear that Thien is not interested in exploring and connecting with his wife’s spiritual side, and will control her with patronizing smiles while laying down firm rules on how he expects their marriage to be conducted.
While remaining faithful to Dostoyevsky in the grand scheme of things, Kiet makes some highly effective alterations to the finer details. Whereas the tragic heroine’s increasing sense of isolation in the short story draws her toward a former colleague of her husband, Linh seeks comfort in Christian religion. This aspect plays strongly within the examination of an emotionally barren marriage, and also contributes nicely to the film’s observations on the social fabric of a country that’s still in recovery and grappling with changing cultural and economic conditions. Although there are a couple of slightly bumpy transitions from the couple’s past to present-time scenes in which Thien attempts to come to terms with the tragedy, the pic achieves its aim of conducting a quietly gripping examination of a marriage doomed by the inequality of its terms.
Nguyen and Tu excel in roles requiring high degrees of precision and restraint. Their finely calibrated performances are matched by Kiet’s meticulous direction and Laurent Machuel’s razor-sharp lensing, which emphasizes warm hues in sequences set in Linh’s home village and lowers the color temperature in the sterile, minimally decorated home she lives in but never really shares with Thien. The film’s other technical components are all fine.