2030 (Nuoc): Berlin Review

Maritime murder mystery proves more watery than grave.

Sci-fi eco-thriller set in a flooded future Vietnam is a seaworthy but ultimately rudderless vessel.

Opening the Panorama section of the Berlin film festival today, this atmospheric Vietnamese hybrid of romantic drama, murder mystery and waterlogged science-fiction eco-thriller initially feels like a kind of Beasts of the Southeast Asian Wild. Mostly set on floating rafts and boats, the mood is poetic and contemplative, the technical finish highly polished. The film's Saigon-born writer-director Nguyen-Vo Nghiem-Minh is a UCLA graduate whose last feature, festival prize-winner Buffalo Boy, was put forward as Vietnam's official Oscar contender in 2006.

Vietnamese cinema is an increasingly rare commodity on international screens, with domestic production in sharp decline since the shift to market economics in the 1980s. So it is disappointing that 2030 never delivers on its initial arty promise. The sci-fi back story remains frustratingly underdeveloped, while the romance and thriller elements unfold with scant surprises. Further festival splashes seem likely for such an intriguingly odd fish, but broader box office potential looks decidedly damp.

The story begins with a dead body floating in water. It is the year 2030, and global warming has drowned most of southern Vietnam under ever-rising sea levels. The dead man is Thi (Thach Kim Long), a lowly farmer who has spent years living above his flooded property with his wife Sao (Quynh Hoa), initially in a wooden stilt house, then in a boat as the tides grow higher. Shortly before his mysterious death, Thi began working at a heavily guarded floating farm nearby.

Jumping back 10 years for an extended second-act flashback, before her marriage to Thi, Sao had a fateful romance with Thuy (Hoang Tran Minh Duc), a visiting scientist researching plant life along the fast-rising river delta. The ambitious Thuy breaks off their brief relationship to continue his corporate career, but later returns to set up the experimental floating farm where Thi loses his life. When the police rule Thi's death an accident, a grief-stricken Sao applies to work at the farm herself, to expose the truth behind his murder.

Nghiem-Minh shoots 2030 with a strong compositional eye for wide horizons and elemental landscapes, sometimes reducing his human protagonists to minor details on a cosmic canvas with a Terrence Malick-like aloofness. His underwater sequences also stand out, particularly those in which Sao and her brother-in-law dive down to visit Thi's submerged coffin. The high-tech near-future Vietnam is evoked with a few elegant strokes, notably miles of wind farms stretching across endless waves towards a towering megacity skyline on the far horizon.

But however visually pleasing it may be, this moody maritime mystery is fatally low on tension. As a murder thriller, it lacks grip. As a dystopian sci-fi ideas movie, it lacks substance. And as a romance, it lacks passion. The storm-lashed climax, with its contrived revelations and self-destructive confessions, stretches implausibility to snapping point. Ultimately, it is hard to muster much shock and awe over a tame conspiracy theory that hinges on genetically modified vegetables. After promising hidden depths, 2030 leaves us splashing around in the shallows.

Production companies: Saigon Media, Green Snapper Productions
Producers: Nguyen-Vo Nghiem-Minh. Bao Nguyen
Cast: Quynh Hoa, Hoang Tran Minh Duc, Thach Kim Long
Director: Nguyen-Vo Nghiem-Minh
Writer: Nguyen-Vo Nghiem-Minh
Cinematographer: Bao Nguyen
Editor: Julie Beziau
Music: Inouk Desmers
Sales agent: Premium Films, Paris
Unrated, 98 minutes