Highlighting a problem that’s far too common in Vietnam and many other countries, “The Little Heart” is an affecting meller about an innocent girl from the sticks who’s tricked into sexual slavery in Saigon. Anchored by Do Nguyen Lan Ha’s moving perf, pic packs enough emotional punch to overcome occasionally bumpy plotting. Frankly spoken but never sexually explicit, fourth feature by helmer Nguyen Thanh Van (“Sandy Lives”) picked up director and actress gongs at Vietnam’s Golden Kite awards. Slim export potential and strong fest legs are indicated. Local release is pending.
Based on a story that grabbed national media attention, pic opens in a coastal fishing village in Quang Binh, a central province where the modernization under way in many parts of Vietnam is little in evidence and the arrival of a TV can still spark a buzz of excitement in the neighborhood.
The eldest daughter of a mother driven to drink by her abusive and unfaithful husband, 17-year-old Mai (Nguyen) seeks refuge in the sand dunes, where she’s romanced by nice boy Den (Pham Van Tuyen) with nothing more than handstands and sweet smiles.
Assuming responsibility for rescuing her family’s ailing finances, Mai approaches Thom (Nguyen Tieu Hoa), a local money lender and Mrs. Fix-it, about taking sewing lessons in Saigon (location is never referred to as Ho Chi Minh City). In a jolting narrative leap, the girl is almost instantly delivered to a riverside brothel run by an icy madam (Tran Bich Hang).
With no idea where she is or what she’s supposed to do, Mai gets the picture when Uncle Hai (Nguyen Hau) pays big money for her to be fattened up to his liking. Much is made of Mai supposedly being untouchable at this point, but the girl is soon put to work.
Film’s theme of innocence destroyed is memorably etched onto the changing face of Mai. Relative unknown Nguyen excels at the task of transforming the naive country girl into a hardened sex worker who’s kept under lock and key.
Crucially, the glimmer of hope never disappears from Mai’s eyes and ignites when she discovers her younger sister Minh (Hong Kim Hanh) is also planning to enroll in Thom’s “sewing lessons.” Despite narrative hitches like an AIDS-related development being awkwardly tacked on, story draws to a tense climax.
Support perfs are on the mark and technical presentation is first rate. Pristine lensing by Nguyen Huu Tuan applies a warm palette to rural images and a slightly harsher one to Saigon-set scenes. English subtitles could use another spelling and grammar check.