A gauchely translated English title does little justice to the refined sensuality and sly strangeness of “Flapping in the Middle of Nowhere,” an immediately distinctive feature-length debut for Vietnamese femme helmer Diep Hoang Nguyen. Though it’s steeped in a rich, particular cultural and spiritual milieu, there’s a universal feminist resonance to this story of a pregnant teen whose plans for an abortion are repeatedly obstructed by financial and romantic complications. Formally daring, politically probing and several tropical fever dreams removed from “Juno,” Diep’s unique take on a girl-in-trouble narrative made a strong critical impression at Venice and should continue to spread its wings on the international festival circuit. That mealy mouthful of a title, however, may be an apt description of its commercial prospects.
Leading Vietnamese auteur Tran Anh Hung is credited as a “special consultant” on “Flapping in the Middle of Nowhere,” and it’s not hard to imagine his own 1993 debut, “The Scent of Green Papaya,” as a formative influence on Diep. Her film is a comparably delicate examination of class and carnal coming-of-age, though its more bristly eroticism, lashed with sour humor, clearly points to the passing of a generation — while Diep, in turn, is preoccupied with the heightened, liberated sexual awareness of her country’s youth. Yet it’s a freedom that clashes harshly with the economic strictures curtailing the options and ambitions of 17-year-old protagonist Huyen (Thuy Anh Nguyen) and her contemporaries; the titular metaphor likens them to birds caught in mid-air.
Huyen has at least flown some distance, having left her rural village to pursue a college education in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi. That her roommate Linh (Thanh Duy Pham Tran, resembling a spiky blend of ladyboy and Miley Cyrus) is a transgender hustler already points to the expansion of her sensibilities. Her own lovelife is less adventurous: Her deadbeat b.f., Tung (Hoang Ha), is a low-earning, debt-riddled municipal worker and amateur cockfighter who is less than delighted when Huyen announces that she’s pregnant with his child. They agree to pool their resources for an abortion, though shortly before the date of the operation, he takes off with the necessary funds. Desperate for cash, Huyen follows Linh into escort work and strikes up a tenderly obsessive bond with wealthy, pregnancy-fixated client Hoang (Bao Son Tran).
As their relationship develops, Huyen feels increasingly conflicted about her planned course of action, yet Diep’s script has little interest in schematic moral debate. Rather, it’s the young woman’s relationship to her own changing body and burgeoning sexual independence that galvanizes this somewhat oblique personal narrative. The right to her own life, with or without a child, is the assertion that spurs Huyen’s intimate odyssey, though there’s little fist-pumping going on here: Diep has crafted a simmering study of a Vietnam still stifled and even silenced by conservative imbalances in class, culture and gender. (Unsurprisingly, the pic was largely Euro-funded.) Performances are effective across the board, with Thuy deftly finding the necessary balance of vulnerability and inscrutability in a character that could easily be played with too much guile, or too little.
If Diep’s pacing slackens a little in a teasingly inconclusive final third, her grasp on the film’s alluringly opiate tone and varied aesthetic textures is impressively maintained to the end. Quang Minh Pham’s woozy lensing, with its deep blotches of shadow and seemingly water-soaked palette, is an invaluable ally in this regard, as is Pham Quang Vinh and Nam Dam Nguyen’s inventive production design.Remarkably resourceful location work is employed to underline the urban decay gnawing at the film’s chosen slice of Hanoi society from the outside in, but this is no stripped-down exercise in social realism. Huyen’s inner life is realized by way of startling abstract imagery that ranges from romantic mysticism to outright body horror: A dream sequence in which a deluge of slugs is expelled from her vagina might make David Cronenberg himself proudly queasy.