In China, youths reportedly sell their kidneys to buy iPads; in Saigon, listless lads turn to sterilization to pay for mobiles, cameras or electric guitars, according to Vietnamese helmer Phan Dang Di’s sophomore feature. Not that “Big Father, Small Father and Other Stories” amounts to an especially stern critique of materialism in so-called “socialist market economies.” Full of impeccably toned men in a seemingly constant state of homoerotic arousal, the pic, like numerous other Vietnamese festival entries, is more of an atmospheric mood piece — visually luxuriant, and oozing existential ennui. Though it’s still vague and posy, it’s more comprehensible than Phan’s Cannes-premiered debut, “Bi, Don’t Be Afraid!” and should be lapped up by Euro arthouse fests and LGBT distrib channels.
Vu (Le Cong Hoang), a provincial boy from Tien Giang in the Mekong Delta, is studying photography in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). His father, Mr. Sau (Nguyen Ha Phong, suggestively seedy), buys him a smuggled foreign camera, which is a big deal in Vietnam in the late ’90s. Sau urges Vu to marry Huong (Nguyen Thi Thanh Truc), the orphan girl who’s been raised as a maid-cum-child-bride in their household.
Vu, however, is content to be the eternal student, chilling out all day and night with housemate Thang (Truong The Vinh), a beefy loafer infatuated with his own virility. Thang’s chums are equally rootless and barely scraping by in the big city — Tung (Mai Quoc Viet) sings slushy folk songs with his tone-deaf sister, Mai (Nguyen Thien Tu), at the night market, while factory worker Cuong can only afford to buy his g.f. a mobile phone by signing up for a government family-planning scheme that offers generous incentives for sterilization.
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Thang bartends at a sleazy club and brings home Van (Do Thi Hai Yen), who studies at a ballet academy by day and stars in the club’s erotic floor show by night. She tries to seduce Vu, who seems too bummed out to care. Tung, who’s borrowed money to buy an electric guitar, gets into a dust-up with small-time hood Binh Boong (Chau The Tam, leeringly psychotic) for not paying protection money, prompting the four buddies to take cover in Vu’s hometown. A liquor-soaked night and the moist Mekong air conspire to make Vu, Thang, Sau and Huong feverish with desire. At the end, which naked bodies will entwine along the writhing Mekong?
On a surface level, “Big Father, Small Father” is another sulky ballad of disaffected youth, with Vu’s forlorn pining for Thang as its emotional thrust. Yet, through a plot strand that becomes increasingly prominent and symbolic toward the end, the film plays with the traditional concept of fatherhood in an ironic manner. An early mordant exchange between Vu and his landlady, Mrs. Phung (Nguyen Thi Kieu Trinh), shows her fretting over not having enough applicants for sterilization to meet government quotas, despite having faked documents for single men to pretend they’ve parented children. Elsewhere, Mr. Sau plays the patriarch by trying to make a man out of Vu, but when the plan backfires, Dad’s own lust gets the better of him, with fateful results.
As Van’s alluring dance moves and the club’s steamy vibes attest, neither the state nor parents can control the sexuality of young people, who, in additional to casual fornication, are selling their bodies, even commodifying genitalia to survive financially. This theme is reinforced at film’s close, with a high-angle shot that literally and figuratively dissects masculinity, but its graphic, on-the-nose style is sure to repel many viewers.
Like “Bi, Don’t Be Afraid,”Big Father, Small Father” is hampered by its own arthouse aspirations. The languorous narrative gives only a hazy impression of the key characters, whose feelings for each other take a long time to emerge. Both Vu’s desire for Thang and the latter’s own sexual ambiguity are observed at a cool remove, limiting emotional impact. Character motives are ditched in favor of the recurring image of men lounging around topless, striking insouciant poses.
The film’s real star is the burnished, exquisitely composed cinematography by Nguyen K’Linh, which exudes a wet, sticky sensuality. Nguyen Dinh Phon’s production design draws striking contrasts between the squalor of downtown Saigon and the Eden-like Tien Giang. Serene lighting evokes the dusky hues of a riverside village free from the glaring neons of the city.