Tran Anh Hung has lived most of his life in France, where he emigrated with his family at the age of twelve not long before the fall of Saigon, but as his films show, he remains deeply Vietnamese at heart. During a visit to Dallas to promote his third feature, “The Vertical Ray of the Sun,” he emphasized the fact. “I don’t look deeply to find my roots, because my roots are deep within me,” he explained with the help of an interpreter, who translated the writer-director’s French. “What’s important is that the film reflects my sensibility. And my sensibility isn’t French–it’s deeply Vietnamese, and profoundly international.”
“Ray” is Tran’s follow-up to “The Scent of Green Papaya” (1993), which won the Camera d’Or prize at Cannes and was nominated for the Oscar as best foreign-language film in 1994, and “Cyclo” (1995), which won the Golden Lion as best film at the Venice Film Festival as well as the award for best film at the Flanders Film Festival. All three films are set in Vietnam, but “Papaya” was actually filmed in France, on sound stages where the locales were recreated, while “Cyclo” was shot in Ho Chi Minh City, the erstwhile capital of South Vietnam. The new film is set in Hanoi, and was shot there with a multi-national crew (director of photography Mark Lee Ping-Bin is Taiwanese); and the site is part of the story’s intimate, close-knit feel. “In spite of the fact that Hanoi is the capital, it seems like a little village,” Tran observed. “In Hanoi you can be yourself. Hanoi’s really a small town, and everybody inevitably meets everybody else.”
The location was part of Tran’s intention to create a family saga involving four siblings, along with their mates, lovers and friends, but to keep the story on a very personal scale and use it to reflect the particular realities of Vietnamese culture. One can sense the care with which he’d selected and used places in Tran’s discussion of a scene set at Halong Bay, a paradisiacal spot about two hours from Hanoi. “It’s a very spectacular locale,” he noted, “but I used it in a very intimate way,” with careful framing “to reveal the inner psychological life of the characters.”
It’s that kind of revelation, Tran indicated, which is the fundamental goal of the film as a whole. “To reveal the problems of couples–the problems of desire and unfaithfulness” is, he said, what the picture is about. But he wanted to depict that concern within the context of the Vietnamese milieu: “I wanted the viewer to feel the environment of the culture, which is Confucianism. And in Confucianism, what is important is the search for harmony. And I wanted the viewer to feel the harmony beyond the problems.” He went on to observe, “What’s important is to create a clash of emotions–that’s the goal of art.” But, he pointed out, the expression of those emotions in his film is far more subdued and controlled than western audiences might expect. That is truly reflective of the culture in which the action is occurring, though it will rightfully seem foreign to viewers in other parts of the world.
The focus in the film, moreover, is on its women characters, and when asked how he managed to create such full, shaded female figures in his films, Tran said, “It’s something very intuitive with me. I changed my sex at my first Cannes Festival. Because when I first screened ‘Scent of Green Papaya’ and people didn’t know me–only my name, and the westerners didn’t know whether it was a male or a female name–most journalists thought that it had been made by a woman. When they saw me, they were surprised I was a man. That’s how I changed my sex.”
Other distinctive aspects of “Ray” are its careful composition, deliberate pace, and brilliant use of color. “Images are sacred for me,” Tran said. “I want the viewer to have the time to see everything. That’s why I’m very attentive to details. An image, for me, has to have a very physical, tactile quality. I work with colors like a painter; the color must impart a sensation to the viewer.”
For his next project, Tran plans to film in North America, but the story he’s chosen retains a Vietnamese connection. It’s an adaptation of Kent Anderson’s novel “Night Dogs,” about a Vietnam veteran who, as a cop in Portland during the mid-seventies, has to confront his past. Tran is currently scouting possible Canadian locations for the shoot.
In the meantime, he is looking forward to the opening of “The Vertical Ray of the Sun” throughout the world. The picture has already been screened in Vietnam to great success; in a country whose cinematic output is small and consists mostly of government-sponsored, politically-themed films, it attracted large audiences, even though tickets had to be bought on the black market. “The copy was shown in one theatre,” Tran said, “and it was run so frequently that the print was eventually destroyed.”
“The Vertical Ray of the Sun” is a Sony Pictures Classics release.