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CANNES 2023 Directors’ Fortnight

Review: Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell


- CANNES 2023: Vietnamese director Thien An Pham makes a confident, imposing debut with this study of a disaffected young man and the nephew suddenly put in his charge

Review: Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell
Le Phong Vu in Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell

Funny how the site of a tumultuous conflict, and a key proxy front of the Cold War, could become one of the more desirable spots for wealthy Western tourists and backpackers, only several decades later. An emerging Vietnamese filmmaker who’s also resided in the USA, Thien An Pham also seems to be nursing this observation judging by his debut feature, Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell, and appears to be on a mission to faithfully unveil his nation for outsiders, but perhaps also for himself. The film premiered late in the selection of the Cannes Directors’ Fortnight.

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Its striking opening sequence lays out the trajectory for the film in miniature. In a work of countless extended tracking shots, our first one – mounted on a wide lens and in deep focus – slowly whisks us from a five-a-side football pitch (abetted by a sight gag involving a costumed mascot à la Bad Luck Banging [+see also:
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) into a lush beer garden, as three very chilled out-looking guys, including our lead, Thien (Le Phong Vu), watch the 2018 World Cup, whilst sharing the odd musing on the subjects of fate, eternal life and destiny. This tableau looks so inviting that you might also want to pull up a stool, but the conversation begins assuming an oddly charged tenor, before it’s interrupted in another rightward camera pan by the aftermath of a fatal motorbike collision.

A tragic incident of a similar nature takes the life of Thien’s sister-in-law Hanh, leaving her five-year-old son Dao (Nguyen Trinh) a de facto orphan. His father Tam, who is Thien’s older brother, absconded from the family several years ago to a remote part of the countryside, where it’s assumed he started another family. So the mild-mannered, yet emotionally stunted, Thien is forced into a realm of responsibility, leaving his modest life as a videographer in Saigon to care for Dao and journey further into the country’s rural areas to reconnect with Tam.

No biographical explanation has been given by Thien about the genesis of this story, but his film-adjacent vocation and the precise historical grounding of 2018 make us wonder about its exact personal resonance. What is less ambiguous is its exploration of Christian belief in the country, notable in light of its Marxist-Leninist government and broader adherence to folk religions. Although only 8% of its population is Christian, practically everywhere Thien turns, he is faced with reminders and echoes of that creed: Hanh receives a grand church funeral where the priest bumptiously attests to her devoted faith; Thao, a love interest from his youth, is now a nun who runs an orphanage, where Dao is left as Thien leaves to recover his father. The filmmaker seems to be wondering, through his gentle mise-en-scène and steady contemplation of things, if Christianity is merely a salve for uncertainty that keeps its devoted Vietnamese followers in a chokehold, or if its theology can be used as a framework to make sense of inexplicable events, like the grief he must endure.

Thien’s work evokes (or happily borrows from) recent East Asian greats like Bi Gan, as it follows protagonist Thien on epic-duration moped shots, and Hong Sang-soo, for a climactic sequence that tilts into fantasy wish fulfilment. Its command of technique risks an imbalance with the simple A-to-B progression of the story, imparting a hypnotic sense of drift, but evoking the analogy of a small knob of butter spread thinly on a large piece of toast.

Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell is a co-production by Vietnam, Singapore, France and Spain, staged by JK Film, Potocol, Deuxième Ligne Films, Zorba Production and Fasten Films. Its world sales are handled by Cercamon.

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