'14 Days, 12 Nights' ('14 Jours, 12 Nuits'): Film Review | Palm Springs 2020

Courtesy Palm Springs International Film Festival
A sympathetic study in cultivating compassion.

Jean-Philippe Duval’s Vietnam-set feature brings together two women from differing cultures who possess a unique family bond.

Vietnam has for centuries been caught up in the struggles of great powers to control its valuable resources and strategic location, first falling under the sway of successive Chinese dynasties and then eventually French colonialism before facing, and repelling, American occupation. These latter two historical developments figure prominently in Jean-Philippe Duval’s 14 Days, 12 Nights, an emotionally intense drama that harnesses the power of compassion and understanding to reach an elusive resolution.

Intercultural adoption can be fraught with unexpected opportunities and obstacles, as childless Canadian oceanographer Isabelle Brodeur (Anne Dorval) and her husband (Francois Papineau) discover after adopting a Vietnamese baby in 1991. They name the girl Clara after the Hanoi orphanage that took her in declines to disclose her birth name or any details about her family background. A subsequent series of flashbacks reveals that the girl’s birth mother, Thuy Nguyen (Leanna Chea), the teenage daughter of a well-off family of doctors, was forced to give her baby up for adoption at childbirth. Clara’s background remains a mystery to her parents until their daughter’s sudden and tragic death in an off-roading vehicle accident at the age of 17. Shattered by grief, Isabelle makes the difficult decision to travel to Vietnam in order to assuage her overwhelming feelings of guilt and somehow find a lasting sense of peace.  

The temporal fluidity evident during the film’s first 30 minutes becomes a frequent feature of 14 Days, 12 Nights, as Duval deploys a highly fractured narrative style. The technique provokes some initial disorientation by shifting time periods sometimes quite abruptly between Isabelle’s journey, Clara’s life shortly before her death and Thuy’s traumatic teen years, but once the time frames are established these transitions become less disruptive.

Bearing Clara’s cremated remains in her luggage, Isabelle arrives in Hanoi, hoping to assuage her growing helplessness by seeking out her daughter’s birth mother and interring the girl’s ashes in her home country. The only information that the orphanage can provide however is a phone number found with a note after Thuy’s overbearing grandmother abandoned the child with the staff 17 years earlier. A series of phone calls leads Isabelle to the travel agency where Thuy works as a tour guide for French-speaking visitors. Without revealing her identity, Isabelle hires Thuy to lead her on a multiday private tour of northern Vietnam, setting the two women on an unpredictable and potentially volatile emotional journey.

Screenwriter Marie Vien never clarifies why a Canadian couple would travel all the way to Southeast Asia to adopt, but reveals a more assured grasp of the conflicting cultural norms impinging on Thuy’s life. Manipulated by her grandmother, who’s embittered by years of resentment toward Westerners after the American bombing of Hanoi killed her daughter and siblings, Thuy has lived her entire adult life with the consequences of an unimaginable sacrifice.

Vien not only locates this family tragedy within the context of the Vietnam War, but also the personal experience of an unwed young mother shunned by her closest relatives and marginalized by her own culture as well. When Isabelle turns up years later, asking her to accept that the daughter she never knew has now died, Thuy’s sense of loss tragically confirms the lifelong negation that leaves her feeling emotionally devastated.

Dorval and Chea’s delicate dance of reconciliation, played out as the two mothers search for some path through their grief, is sometimes so palpable that it becomes difficult to watch. Duval underlines this intensity by assiduously amping up passages of composer Bertrand Chénier’s aching orchestral score, a technique that tends to overwhelm key scenes.

Duval’s choice of imagery is somewhat more restrained, frequently contrasting the harsh, snowy winter weather of eastern Canada that Isabelle leaves behind for the cool subtropical climate of Hanoi and the lush landscapes of the surrounding region, carpeted with verdant rice paddies and dotted with Buddhist temples. Taken together, these scenes suggest that Isabelle’s journey serves to revitalize and enshrine her memories of Clara, while returning her to the mother and the country that gave her birth.

The death of a child is an almost unimaginable tragedy for any parent, so Duval’s ability to treat the subject with both restraint and insight makes the scale of such a loss just a little more comprehensible, if no less overwhelming.

Production company: Attraction Images
Cast: Anne Dorval, Leanna Chea, Francois Papineau, Laurence Barrette
Director: Jean-Philippe Duval
Screenwriter: Marie Vien
Producer: Antonello Cozzolino
Executive producers: Marleen Beaulieu, Louise Lantagne, Richard Speer
Director of photography: Yves Belanger
Production designer: Andre-Line Beauparlant
Editor: Myriam Poirier
Music: Bertrand Chénier
Venue: Palm Springs International Film Festival

99 minutes