The stirring “Foul King” marks a major breakthrough for Vietnamese writer-director Do Minh Tuan, who shows the craft and the deep understanding of marginal characters that was the hallmark of Kenji Mizoguchi. Although unspooled in world preem at the Palm Springs fest — always a major showcase for foreign-lingo Oscar submissions — pic was sadly out of the race, since the host country failed to submit it — or any other title — for this year’s derby. Saga of the humanizing of a coarse garbage dump operator has the satisfaction of a good novel or the Nippon classics of the post-war era. Fests should clamor for the drama, though a lack of jazzy commercial elements and a resolute, old-school pace will its narrow theatrical avenues to East Asian niche sites and specialty sites catering to the Vietnamese Diaspora.
Better translated from the Vietnamese as “King of the Garbage Dumps,” “Foul King” is distinct from the more dominant trends in East Asian cinema, whether it’s the super-stylish (Wong Kar-wai), the crowd-pleasing actioner (Johnnie To), the ultra-aesthetic (Tsai Ming-liang) or the extreme genre pics from South Korea and Japan. Asian cinema mavens should especially take note of how Do, a highly regarded multimedia artist and poet, appears to be going his own way, interested in crafting a narrative in a mode that develops characters and relationships in fine detail.
Do’s way of blending new and older elements is on view from the start, as he intros Thuy (Nguyen Bich Ngoc) elliptically, after her first embarrassing episode as a prostitute, and then in fuller, more melodramatic terms, as she struggles to keep her adoptive mother from finding out where she makes the money to buy her medicine. Garbage dealer Trong (Vo Hoai Nam) seems to take pity on Thuy, and seduced by his charm, she opts for the security of his home.
Catch is that said home sits amid a sprawling trash dump, which Trong rules like a potentate. Thuy sees the other side of this operator, who exploits garbage collectors by demanding a large percentage of their profits, while trying to enforce some workable rules for the dump. Lack of polemics is especially striking, in two respects: First, Do simply observes the desperately poor sifting through the garbage for a few nuggets of usable stuff without turning them into a symbol of Viet social problems; second, though Trong could be seen as a stand-in for the typical capitalist pig, he’s such a rounded character that it becomes impossible to stereotype him.
When Thuy takes pity on a trash-collecting child, and Trong rebukes her for it, she goes back home, where her adoptive father wastes money on drink, and blind family friend Van (Tran Hanh) raises his baby. Do’s script skillfully keeps several character strands working at once, tracing Trong’s clumsy attempts to win Thuy back, dramatizing family tragedy when Thuy’s past life as a prostitute is revealed, and developing a friendship between Thuy — selling exotic flowers on the city streets — and an artist, Si Long (Cuong Tuc), who creates vivid portraits of her and becomes more and more involved in the central story.
Do’s consistently subtle treatment makes for a moving, evolutionary drama, which shows how the impact of Thuy and her circle of acquaintances and family has a gradual yet profound impact on Trong. He’s a character out of Budd Schulberg, hard-boiled to the core, brought down by circumstances and yet lifted up in the end by hope. It’s a character arc resoundingly mastered by Vo, a thesp of tremendous intensity who could easily have an international career. In the Mizoguchi-like role of the woman circumscribed by social pressures and attitudes, Nguyen’s Thuy is the film’s beating, breaking heart, a lovely actor who wisely hems in the most excessive emotions. Cast is generally aces, some working in extremely difficult — and, no doubt, odorous — conditions.
Production is superbly crafted, with lenser Nguyen Duc Viet’s expressive nighttime work a particular standout. With exquisite taste, Trong Dai’s score mixes passionate and atonal qualities.