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Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s short story “A Gentle Creature” is transplanted from 19th century Russia to contemporary Vietnam, highlighting the story’s enduring universality and providing writer-director Le Van Kiet with a solid foundation for a melancholy story about the inevitable collapse of a marriage that was doomed from the start.
Staying faithful to the source material with only minor changes in the main character’s background, Gentle is a resonant and elegant examination of the distances between people and the sometimes tragic consequences of not bridging them. Le met with astounding success in Vietnam with his take on horror (House in the Alley), but here displays a maturity and delicacy not often associated with that genre. Gentle is sure to find success on the festival circuit, and interest in Vietnam’s quickly emerging film industry could net the film limited art house distribution overseas.
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The film, like the story, begins at the end, with pawnshop owner Thien (Dustin Nguyen) standing over the body of his dead wife, Linh (Nguyen Thanh Tu). Despondent and guilt-racked, Thien reflects on their short life together and attempts to make sense of her suicide.
The two first meet when Thien finally makes some small talk with Linh, a regular in his shop. Thien eventually enlists his housekeeper, Xuan (Bich Hong), to find out about the young woman — easily half his age — leading to him offering to “save” her from her miserable poverty, vicious aunts Giang and Thom, and marriage to an abusive butcher.
The disconnect between the two strangers drives the rest of the film. She’s young and curious; he’s much older and controlling. She blossoms with her so-called freedom; it makes him jealous and suspicious. They clearly share little common ground, and Thien seems uninterested in attempting to get to know her. Most crucially, Linh’s devotion to the church, a balm to her increasing emotional isolation, irrationally bothers him and dredges up his considerable issues with God.
Nguyen (putting 21 Jump Street firmly behind him) is strong as the fastidious and obsessive Thien, turning in a nuanced performance based on material that is occasionally poorly defined; his obsession with her flares a little too quickly. Similarly, where newcomer Nguyen Thanh Tu’s frequently blank expressions could have simply looked vapid, instead she manages a fine balance between an inability to express herself to Thien and tightly restrained joy when she’s at church with friends or singing in the choir.
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Le directs with a firm hand and remains largely in control of the material throughout, with only minor quibbles: Giang and Thom are so horrible that they’d twirl mustaches if they had them, and though effective, the visual contrast between the lush village Linh lived in and the smooth sterility of Thien’s house is an old trick. But those are minor flaws in an otherwise moving portrait of a woman’s desperation to escape the confines of her life in the most drastic way possible.
Production company: Coco Paris
Cast: Dustin Nguyen, Nguyen Thanh Tu, Kieu Trinh, Bich Hong, Hong Thy, Bui Van Hai
Director: Le Van Kiet
Screenwriter: Le Van Kiet, based on “A Gentle Creature” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Producer: Dan Tran, Le Van Kiet, Nicole Kim Le
Executive producer: Dan Tran, Nguyen Thanh Thai
Director of photography: Laurent Machuel
Production designer: Pascal Huynh
Costume designer: Phan Thi Minh Chau Linh
Editor: Quyen Luu Dan
Music: Nguyen Dang Tue
Sales: Oration Films
No MPAA rating, 102 minutes
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