Water, water everywhere, but barely a drop of coherence. A lushly lensed sci-fi thriller-romance set in a futuristic Vietnam half submerged by rising sea levels as a consequence of ecological crimes, “2030” conjures a glistening oceanic world, but lets its concepts go adrift with far-fetched plotting and dystopian cliches, drowning an initially simple yet entrancing love triangle in the process. An aesthetically pleasing package should enable Nghiem-minh Nguyen Vo’s film to swim around festivals and eventually land the odd theatrical deal Stateside and in Europe.
A Vietnam-born, France- and U.S.-educated aeronautical engineer and physicist, Nguyen Vo made his directorial debut in 2006 with “The Buffalo Boy,” which toured numerous festivals. Though that film was set during Vietnam’s French colonial period and movingly depicts a father-son/mentor-disciple relationship, its elemental lyricism still resonates with “2030’s” depiction of a couple leading a frugal yet Edenic existence on their floating habitat. This time, the drama (adapted from Nguyen Ngoc Tu’s short story “Nuoc nhu nuoc mat”) is enriched by its focus on a sensuous and plucky female character who doesn’t buckle under intimidation or social ostracism in her pursuit of love and truth.
The film’s Vietnamese title, “Nuoc,” has the double meaning of water and nation, introducing a metaphor about the nation’s fluid, ephemeral nature that the narrative makes literal: In 2030, 50% of Vietnam’s land mass has sunk underwater due to global warming, and 80% of South Vietnam has been evacuated to the North. When the film opens, Sao (Quynh Hoa) is shown the body of her husband, Thi (Thach Kim Long), who has drowned near the Dai Thanh Floating Farm. When the police tell her Thi was trying to steal from the farm, Sao’s sorrow turns to disbelief and indignation.
The story then flashes back to the married life of Sao and Thi, who, despite some hardships, live happily in a thatched hut perched on stilts; when the water level rises, they relocate to a boathouse. As they adjust to the realities of having no land to till or to raise livestock on, their daily routines of fishing, cultivating potted veggies and collecting rain water in jars feel less futuristic than primeval, as if they were rescued animals on Noah’s ark. Debussy’s “Claire de lune” forms a soundscape for the stormy weather, adding a touch of modernist lyricism, though the music comes to sound incongruous and passe in the sci-fi-heavy coda.
Consisting largely of closeups and mid shots, the film’s compositions work best in this early episode, enhancing the couple’s sensuous relationship — especially in a sex scene on the deck where the seawater is seen rippling beneath the wooden planks. Occasional tensions upset the story’s languid rhythm, as when Sao evinces flashes of irascibility, or when Thi fumes over the fishermen trespassing on his cherished ancestral land, the boundaries having being swallowed up by the sea. This chapter comes to an abrupt halt at the half-hour mark, when Thi announces that he’s found a seemingly lucrative new job.
Back in the present, Sao hears vendors in the market gossiping that Thi might have been murdered. Her husband’s younger brother, Thanh (Hoang Phi), shows up to pay respects in a beautiful underwater scene, placing a bouquet over Thi’s steel coffin at the bottom of the sea. There’s an intriguing sexual frisson between Sao and this scarred, tattooed drifter, but it’s cut disappointly short when he’s arrested and forcibly removed from the plot. At that point, Sao, determined to unearth Dai Thanh’s secrets, takes a job in the farm’s agricultural lab, which is operated by her old flame, Giang (Quy Binh). Cue flashbacks to 10 years earlier, when Giang arrived in Sao’s hometown to research a specimen of seaweed and wound up courting her in a cafe; everything about this passage, from the pretentious boho set to the characters’ pseudo-philosophical musings, rings false.
The narrative becomes even shakier as it’s compelled to move toward a resolution; amid crudely formulated plot devices involving genetically modified vegetables, the script never fulfills its genre potential. The eventual revelations are neither sinister nor fantastical enough, and the ending is just a morass of mysticism (mutant herbivores or monster corianders might have perked things up slightly). Performance-wise, Quynh appealingly conveys Sao’s unpredictability, swinging from childlike to voluptuous to willful and resolute; the actress towers over male leads Long and Binh, who are mediocre as a simple, butch peasant type and a suave but ambitious intellectual, respectively.
Shot in Can Gio and Ho Chi Minh City, the pic is partly redeemed by Bao Nguyen’s versatile lensing, with its intriguing camera angles and gorgeous panoramic shots, complemented by Tan Tran’s magnificent aerial photography. The helmer’s own underwater cinematography is also well executed, if sometimes gratuitous and dragged out. Other tech credits are less impressive; urban scenes and “high-tech” props don’t achieve the desired ultra-futuristic look, and the limited budget in general struggles to achieve that cool sci-fi sheen.