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Before enrolling in film school and making his feature film debut, Father and Son’s director Luong Dinh Dung worked as a mechanic, miner and blacksmith. His non-professional cast comprises a doctor, a schoolboy and a medal-winning former wrestler. Principal photography was slated to begin in 2013, but was suspended for two years when its outdoor sets — all purposely built in one of Vietnam’s most far-flung corners — were destroyed by rainstorms.
Rather than a distraction, these peculiar anecdotes only add to Father and Son’s sensitive and subtle charm. Based on the very simple premise of two villagers’ bumpy descent into the maddening chaos of a modern city, Dung’s film offers lavish imagery and affecting characters aplenty.
Having already traveled to a string of smaller U.S. festivals after its domestic release in April, the pic is bound to hit more high-profile events after its selection as Vietnam’s submission for consideration in the best foreign-language film Oscar category. Its latest stop was at Tallinn Black Nights. The international connections of Korean distributor Lotte Cinema should help it circulate further.
Father and Son begins in a pristine riverside village, where fisherman Moc (Ngo The Quan) leads a modest but happy life with his son Ca (Do Trong Tan). The pair work, rest and play amidst incredibly scenic landscapes in the largely untouched valleys of the northern Vietnamese province of Ha Giang. Their joyous bonding routines are punctuated by interaction with their similarly destitute but content neighbors. Moc even entertains the thought of proposing to the local schoolteacher, a move Ca readily approves of.
The odd man out among these shiny happy people is Uncle Blind (wrestler Ha Van Hieu), who is now back in his village after a devastating spell as a construction worker in the city. He regales the local children with near-fantastic tales of bustling urbanity and the skyscraper — which he calls the “big house” — that he helped build. Blind’s stories, alongside the regular sightings of airplanes (“birds in the sky”), leads Ca to fantasize about the incredible world out there.
Ca’s wish to see all this finally comes true, but only in the film’s tragic second half, when Moc is forced to take the increasingly unwell boy to the city for medical treatment. Cue the scenes of physical and psychological dislocation, as the pair is forced to contend with the noise and chaos of a modern metropolis (or at least Vietnam’s version of it, in scenes shot in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City). As Moc struggles with money, Ca’s dreams continue, the image of that heaven-touching “house” lasting until his very last days.
The film shares certain structural and visual elements with Alexander Sokurov’s family drama of the same title, like the close bond between a man and his son as seen in their intimate interactions, and the adult’s desperate concern for his child’s well-being. But Dung’s Father and Son is much less complex and ambitious — and all the better for it. The young filmmaker has veered away from both easy exotica and lazy melodrama, instead opting for simple but poised storytelling with the help of editor Julie Beziau, who has worked on Vietnam’s recent festival hits Adrift and Bi, Don’t Be Afraid. Just as those two films propelled Bui Thac Chuyen and Pham Dang Di to prominence, Father and Son should do the same for Dung.
Production companies: Tu Van Film Production and Media
Cast: Ngo The Quan, Do Trong Tan, Ha Van Hieu
Director: Luong Dinh Dung
Screenwriters: Bui Kim Quy, Luong Dinh Dung
Producers: Nguyen Chi Dung, Nguyen Thi Huong
Executive producer: Nguyen Chi Dung
Director of photography: Ly Thai Dung
Production designer: Ma Phi Hai
Costume designer: Nguyen Viet Chung
Music: Lee Dong June
Editors: Pham Thi Hao, Julie Beziau
Casting: Nguyen Thanh Tung
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