A day in the life of a Vietnamese refugee turned Stateside masseuse provides the framework for “Kieu.” Collaboratively created under first-time feature helmer Vu T. Thu Ha, pic’s potentially lurid subject is treated with almost excessive restraint. Emphasis on poetic delicacy over reality is admirable, even if the tight rein on character insight and dramatic incident finally make this short feature feel like an elongated short subject.
Pic was inspired by 200-year-old epic poem “Truyen Kieu,” wherein a virtuous young woman endures endless degradation and suffering. But lit connection will elude most viewers watching present-day Kieu (Kathy Uyen) wake in her modest San Francisco flat, spend the afternoon shopping, then reluctantly head off to the massage/prostitution biz where fellow workers share camaraderie but no joy. Flashbacks (some shot in the Philippines’ Vietville, where a colony of “boat people” still live) provide fragmentary info of Kieu’s past traumas and the beloved family she supports long-distance. Most potent scene is when her smitten grocery clerk (Christopher Dinh) shows up unexpectedly as a nighttime client, mortifying them both. But narrative is diffuse, impact ephemeral. Attractive score highlights the thoughtful package.