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But for all its aesthetic qualities, Big Father, Little Father and Other Stories is as clunky as its title suggests. The on-screen lethargy permeating the characters’ lives in Big Father actually borders on a self-parody of the director’s previous good work.
Here, Di’s erstwhile strengths – the subtle but sensual visual symbolism highlighting the consequences of chauvinism in both Bi and also his screenplay for Bui Thac Thuyen‘s Adrift – have dissipated amidst an episodic mish-mash of life fragments and socially conscious anecdotes about vanquished young lives in a blooming Vietnam. While the director’s standing as his country’s big filmmaking hope could certainly generate yet another festival run after its bow in competition in Berlin, this Vietnamese-Dutch-German-French co-production falls short of being that one big artistic breakthrough that Di needs to establish himself as a heavyweight at a time when auteur cinema in Southeast Asia in growing.
A key problem with Big Father lies with its setting. Bi and Adrift are riveting because their characters struggle to channel their inner urges in a heavily regulated social milieu. Big Father, meanwhile, unfolds in a comparatively much more permissive environment – a 1990s Ho Chi Minh City seething with risque nightclubs, gambling dens and drug-peddling gangsters. The reason for repression is less clear.
Why, for example, does the film’s lead character, the wannabe photographer Vu (Le Cong Hoang), refrain from sharing his real feelings with self-styled-playboy roommate Thang (Truong Te Vinh)? What exactly is going through the minds of Vu’s washed-up father (Nguyen Ha Phong) when he chances on his son’s advances on Thang, apart from urging the villager girl Huong (Nguyen Thi Thanc Truc) – whom the patriarch has arranged to become the boy’s wife – to try her best to “make him a man”? How does Van (Do Thi Hai Yen), the “third wheel” stuck between Vu and Thang in that bizarrely non-steamy love triangle, cope with her double life as a ballerina by day and a crack-smoking nightclub dancer after dark?
Instead, the excessive moping actually only highlights how the story drags along. Big Father fails to convey the stifling and sticky heat of a city that has year-round tropical summer. And what should have been the film’s turning point – when the characters travel upriver to Vu’s home village after one too many tussles with local hoodlums – also struggles to jack up the tension. Admittedly, Di is more in his elements there as he, his DP Nguyen K’Linh and production designer Nguyen Dinh Phong finally deliver the director’s trademark style of magically strange sequences. But not enough has been put into properly setting up this journey into the characters’ hearts of darkness.
Big Father is more about impasses, and its moments of pointing to the crisis of Vietnamese masculinity – such as one of the young men Cuong (Le Van Hoang) coaxed by the neighborhood administrator (Nguyen Thi Kieu Tranh) into getting sterilized so as to get a cash reward for the new cell phone his girlfriend needs – is never given the fleshy follow-ups they deserve. The stagnation frustrates, not just for what happens on-screen, but also because of the huge potential Di has previously shown in his shorts and his as-yet short career.
Production companies: DNY Viet Nam Productions, Acrobates Films, with Busse & Halberschmidt Filmproduction, Volya Films
Cast: Do Thi Hai Yen, Nguyen Ha Phong, Le Cong Hoang, Troung The Vinh
Director: Phan Dang Di
Screenwriter: Phan Dang Di
Producers: Ngoc Tran Thi Bich, Claire Lajoumard, with Markus Halberschmidt, Denis Vaslin
Executive producers: Calvin T. Lam, Le Hang Lizeroux, Phan Dang Di, Paolo Bertolin
Director of photography: Nguyen K’Linh
Production designer: Nguyen Dinh Phong
Costume designer: Huynh My Ngoc
Editors: Julie Bézlau
Music: Chapelier Fou
Sound designer: Franck Desmoulins
Sales: Urban Distribution International
No rating; 100 minutes
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Santa Barbara International Film Festival