Vietnamese-born Pauline Chan, already known on the fest circuit for her short films (especially “The Face Between the Door and the Floor”), has come up with a solid feature debut in “Traps,” an interesting, suspenseful pic which takes four intriguing characters and places them in an exotic and dangerous setting: French Indochina (later Vietnam) in 1950. Strong performances from a good cast should earn this quality Australian production critical kudos.
This was a very tricky project to bring off, since the book on which the film is loosely based, Kate Grenville’s “Dreamhouse,” is not set in Vietnam but in Italy; the drastic shift in locale probably explains some of the oddities in the narrative, notably why an Australian journalist has been assigned to write a favorable piece about life on a French-owned rubber plantation in Southeast Asia (why not a French journalist, since everything written has to be translated into French?)
But these doubts are eventually cast aside, partly because Chan makes her characters so interesting and partly because she seizes the opportunity of filming on location in her homeland to create an intimate and chilling depiction of the beginning of the Communist insurrection that eventually led to the Vietnam War.
The journalist, Michael Duffield (newcomer Robert Reynolds) and his English photographer wife, Louise (Saskia Reeves), arrive at the plantation managed by a Frenchman, Daniel (Sami Frey) and meet the man’s intense and rather strange daughter, Viola (Jacqueline McKenzie). In essence, “Traps” is a four-hander in which the emotions and passions of these characters are placed under the microscope, though the mounting tension of the increasingly militant Viet-Minh rebels, some of whom are employed at the plantation, is a major additional factor in the drama.
It soon becomes obvious that something is wrong with the marriage; Louise and Michael don’t have much to say to each other, and Louise often seems distracted. But they do have a healthy sexual relationship, except when Michael becomes unexpectedly violent (in reasonably graphic scenes). Nor does everything seem quite as it should be between Daniel and his daughter. He’s arrogant and manipulative, a man of the world who, the film suggests, might have been on intimate terms with the girl, who apparently takes after her mother, whose absence remains unexplained.
The women pair off when Louise befriends the very unsophisticated Viola, even suggesting she return with her to London when the visit comes to an end. But she’s shocked by Viola’s sluttish behavior toward French soldiers who pick up both women when they’re stranded after a tire blow-out in the jungle. The suspenseful climax has the women captured by the Communists and facing what they expect to be imminent death.
Chan pulls the various strands of the film together with skill; “Traps” is a very well-made film, though it lacks the dazzling style of the director’s shorts.
Performances are solid, with Jacqueline McKenzie stealing the pic as the sulky, rebellious Viola. Saskia Reeves vividly portrays the unhappy Louise, Robert Reynolds is well cast as the somewhat bland Michael, and Sami Frey brings an edge to his role as the devious Daniel.
“Traps” was filmed on location in Vietnam and in far North Queensland, but looks seamlessly convincing as far as locale and period are concerned. All tech credits are excellent, especially Kevin Hayward’s fine photography.