Phan Dang Di’s account of a young photography student exploring new opportunities at the turn of the millennium in a country that itself is opening up to the world is a gorgeous affair. Whether out in the jungles of Mekong, or on the cluttered streets of Saigon, every shot is lovingly crafted, rich with possibility in its use of colour and light.
A strange kind of love triangle sits at the centre of a story that’s not unwilling to wander off on lengthy detours. Vu (Le Cong Hoang) has moved from his father’s countryside home to the big city to pursue photography. Living in a flat share with the strikingly handsome Thang (Truong The Vinh), he begins to hang around with him more and more until a physical relationship starts to become a growing possibility. Complicating, or maybe enhancing the situation, is Van (Do Thi Hai Yen), a sensual female dancer who maintains a casual relationship with Thang.
The splits between old and new in Vietnam are teased out gradually. The city is a sprawling space of opportunity and threat. Vu is savagely assaulted by police in a nightclub who, seeing his camera, mistake him for a reporter. When they find out he’s not, they simply apologise and move on. A health clinic is working hard to convince men to get vasectomies once they’ve had a couple of children, offering cash pay-outs to those that agree.
Violence breaks out regularly as gangs seek protection money and attack those that don’t pay on time. One such attack provides the catalyst for the trio plus their friends Cuong (Truong Van Hoang), Tung (Mai Quoc Viet) and Mai (Thanh Tu) to flee to Vu’s father while they wait for the heat to die down. Out in the countryside, the diverging cultures in Vietnam become glaring. Vu’s father Mr. Sau (Nguyen Ha Phong) supports his big city life but catches him with Thang. He tries to force a wife he’s picked out onto his son without success.
Di has an eye for the little details to underscore his themes. Having undergone a vasectomy mainly to buy a new mobile phone, one of Vu’s friends is horrified when a child on his father’s boat throws it overboard to see if this strange object can float. At the start, Mr. Sau informs his son that he paid for the camera in rice. He’s disappointed when his son appears not to know the value of this foundational commodity.
Big Father, Small Father and Other Stories sometimes falls prey to its own strengths. Shots are held slightly too long, the camera caught up in the beauty of the moment. This creates a loose, baggy feel to the plot, the characters drifting around aimlessly at times. Di can’t quite merge his themes together, the intimate relations between Vu and his friends left disconnected from the wider focus on a rapidly changing Vietnam. Changing it is though, and this beautiful journey through a nervous and frowned upon romance is alive with possibilities.
Director: Dang Di Phan
Stars: Truong The Vinh, Do Thi Hai Yen
Runtime: 100 min
Country: Vietnam, France, Germany, Netherlands