|M O V I E R E V I E W B Y C R I S S A - J E A N C H A P P E L L|
Like the twins, their parents shared a metaphysical union that extended beyond the physical. They passed away only a month apart, experiencing an identical length of life on earth. The Vertical Ray of the Sun, the latest mood piece by Vietnamese-French director Tran Anh Hung (The Scent of Green Papaya) follows a family in modern Hanoi plunged in a period of self-examination between the funeral anniversaries of their beloved mother and father.
The youngest siblings, Lien (Tran Nu Yen Khe, the director’s wife and star) and her easygoing brother Hai (Ngo Quang Hai), seem like reincarnations of their parents. This is not an incestuous love. It mimics a more philosophical definition of a perfect union. If man and woman were, at one time, a single soul, then Lien and Hai must represent a kind of unity. In The Symposium, Socrates argues that love is a desire for the whole: "…desire and love have for their object things or qualities which a man does not at present possess but which he lacks." The human condition is one of lack, and love is the attempt to remedy that lack through finding one's ideal counterpart. Moreover, Plato insists that love is part divine and it should move those it affects closer to divinity. Any other form of love that does not aspire to this ideal is debased and false.
If Lien and Hai can love each other, there is hope for humanity. The hypnotic story, told through ever-unfolding flashbacks, draws parallels with the other members of the family. Khanh (Le Khanh), the middle sister, is married to a novelist who suffers from writer’s block. The third sister, Suong (Nguen Nhu Quynh), suspects that her husband cares more about photographing rare plants than making love. In fact, he has a mistress and son who live secretly on the island where he collects his specimens.
The sisters are troubled by problems in their romantic pasts and haunted by their mother’s unexplained relationship with a stranger named Toan. While dwelling on this puzzle, they cope with the crises in their own lives, slipping between past and present so it becomes increasingly difficult to tell one from the other.
In a London interview, director Tran said, "I wanted my film to feel like a caress. It had to have a gentle smile floating through it, a sort of floating feeling…My thoughts turned back to my childhood in DaNang, remembering the time when I’d be waiting to fall asleep at night, my mind racing from one thing to another, nothing precise. The smell of fruit coming in through the window, a woman’s voice singing on the radio. Everything was so vague. It was like a feeling of suspension. If I’ve ever experienced harmony in my life it was then. It was just a matter of translating that rhythm and that musicality into the new film."
The film's title, which can also be translated as "At the Height of Summer," hints at a nostalgia for a time that may never have existed. Tran’s languorous version of Vietnam resembles a haiku. One might pause the film at any moment and create a rapturous portrait. A clean, Eastern sense of beauty saturates every scene with rich details harmonious with nature: the sound of trickling, stone garden fountains, the resonating ding of wind chimes designed to make calm linger. While the men suffer writer’s block, the women make rituals of everyday life into an art form—from preparing a meal to raising a child. The Eastern eye delights in symmetry, intuitive placement, subtle shades and combinations of colors, a proclivity toward balance, rational sequence, and separation of colors. The Eastern design penetrates into all levels, from ceramics, textiles, the tea ceremony, gardens and flower arrangement.
Tran Anh Hung grew up in Paris, admiring the work of filmmaker Robert Bresson, a French auteur whose movies succumb to the essence of characters, rather than their actions. Tran was born in Vietnam and traveled to France with his family at the age of six. His contemporary Hanoi is like the memory of an old love, fleeting and evanescent, growing sweeter with time.