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BERLINALE 2024 Panorama

Review: Cu Li Never Cries


- BERLINALE 2024: In his debut, Vietnamese director Phạm Ngọc Lân creates a thought-provoking, but at times slow, reflection on changing times and the ghosts of the past

Review: Cu Li Never Cries
Nguyễn Thị Minh Châu (left) and Hoàng Hà in Cu Li Never Cries

In Vietnamese, the term cu li has three meanings. The first refers to an unskilled native labourer in Asia. The second is the small, button-eyed primate also featured in the movie, which is native to the Vietnamese jungle. The third is the name for the golden chicken fern, a plant which, in oriental medicine, is used as a cure for back, tendon and bone pains. All of these elements mingle in Phạm Ngọc Lân’s feature debut, Cu Li Never Cries, which screened in the Panorama section of the 74th Berlinale, snagging the GWFF Best First Feature Award.

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The protagonist, Mrs Nguyên (Minh Châu), is the embodiment of these three cu lis. Inspired by Lân’s relatives, specifically his aunt, Mrs Nguyên was once part of the Vietnamese labour force sent overseas to countries like East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Having managed to secure a foreign husband and thus live the dream life in the “ultimate communist paradise”, she had to return to Vietnam to take care of her abandoned niece Vân (Hà Phương). The loss of her ideal life and the estrangement of a husband far away are only part of the reason why the women do not get along: it is also the generational shift, as the Vietnam of Mrs Nguyên's memory is making way for a different sensitivity.

In the opening, Mrs Nguyên has just returned from Germany, having collected the ashes of her now-deceased husband. By her side is an unlikely form of inheritance: a small primate from the Vietnamese jungle, a cu li, whose outrageous cuteness makes half the film. Vân is not very happy about this intruder in the household, but she has her own issues to contend with. Her secret pregnancy means that she will have to marry the father of the baby, Quang (Xuân An), as quickly as possible, and then move to the remote countryside until her labour. This is a thought she detests, but Mrs Nguyên shows little sympathy. Her attention is mostly reserved for her cu li, and the pain in her legs she has been experiencing. A newfound friendship with a local pet-shop owner, who hands her traditional medicine, another cu li, becomes more of a fixation than the company of her niece.

The lively existence of Vân and her boyfriend, the skating, the ice cream and the dancing with her kindergarten kids, stands in strong contrast with Mrs Nguyên, who only slowly starts opening up to her surroundings. Taking her cu li to dance events, she befriends a young waiter, another optimistic representative of Vietnam’s changing identity. Mrs Nguyên remains wary of the changes time has brought to her country. Her character is still weighed down by the burdens of history, unable to understand those who have liberated themselves from it.

By keeping his footage in carefully graded black and white, Lân sharpens his focus on this meditation on life, happiness and the past. Combined with this minimal visual disruption, the background sound is also reduced, kept to the bare minimum to establish an organic atmosphere. His visual and acoustic storytelling, combined with the slow pace of the film and the carefully curated amount of dialogue, is reminiscent of the works of Philippine director Lav Diaz. Lân manages, though, to tell a more compressed story, with a 92-minute running time, as opposed to the four hours and counting that one would expect of Diaz. There are still some slumps in the pacing, nonetheless. But as a whole, Cu Li Never Cries offers an interesting gaze upon Vietnamese society, and the conflict arising from dealing with history and societal change.

Cu Li Never Cries is a co-production involving Vietnam, Singapore, France, the Philippines and Norway, and was staged by Cadence Studio, An Nam Productions, Purple Tree Content, E&W Films, Acrobates Films, Epicmedia Productions Inc, Ape&Bjørn AS and Storm Films AS. It is sold internationally by Austria’s Square Eyes.

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