'Flapping in the Middle of Nowhere' ('Dap canh giua khong trung'): Venice Review

Courtesy of Venice International Film Critics' Week
A sensitive, sensual vision of dead-end existences in Vietnam.

Nguyen Hong Diep's first full-length film zeroes in on a pregnant teenager confronting the mundane realities of inner-city life in Hanoi.

A pregnant teen turns tricks to get cash for an abortion; the basic premise of Nguyen Hoang Diep's feature-film directorial debut might seem well-trodden, but it's the style which propels Flapping in the Middle of Nowhere into heights dizzier than its apparently hackneyed synopsis. Poised in its mise-en-scene, poetic in employing visual panache and precise in capturing details which hint at the harsh realities of inner-city life, Diep's film offers a sensitive, sensual and surprisingly candid representation of sexuality and adolescence in Vietnam.

Even before bringing her debut to the Venice's Critics Week sidebar and then Toronto, Diep could already boast of exposure and experience on the festival circuit as producer of Phan Dang Di's award-winning Cannes-bowing 2011 title Bi, Don't Be Afraid. With Flapping, Diep should finally find some deserved acclaim for an approach which combines audacious realism (in its portrayal of juvenile delinquency) and leaps of artistic fantasy. In spite of its multinational co-production status, Flapping doesn't toy with cultural exotica as such; instead, it offers a story about young protagonists struggling to exist, never daring to dream of futures which seem unattainable anyway.

At the center of this narrative is Huyen (Nguyen Thuy Anh), a rurally-bred teenager who has left her home village to attend college in Hanoi. Unbeknownst to her parents, she is involved in a relationship with Tung (Hoang Ha), a feckless boy who spends all his street-lamp repairman's salary on cock fighting — an obsesssion which lands the couple in trouble when they need cash for Huyen's abortion. With Tung having fled home to evade his debtors, Huyen — with the help of her transgender housemate Linh (Thanh Duy) — turns to escort work for cash, only to find herself meeting (and then falling for) a kind, generous and (of course) hunky client Hoang (Tran Bao Son), who is seemingly more interested in her feelings than her body.

A key strength of the film lies in how Diep conveys the middle-of-nowhere social ambience which seems to engulf and suffocate Huyen into a tragic silence. Some of social squalor on display is astounding, given how a rigorous censorship regime remains in place in the one-party-state of Vietnam.

Eschewing high drama — apart from, perhaps, a throat-slitting scene which would leave animal-loving audiences queasy — the film thrives in portraying a rough milieu with such ordinariness, in a country nominally communist but obviously well in tune with the excess of capitalist societies everywhere: The machismo at the cockfights; the cramped living conditions marked by trains passing just inches away from foodstalls and crumbling houses; the accepted lack of privacy at gynecological wards; schoolgirls prettying themselves up to curry favor and better grades from their male teachers.

These lyrical scenes highlighting the brutality of everyday life in Hanoi provide a stepping-off point for the more fantastical sequences revolving around Huyen's blooming relationship with Hoang. Such visions, ably brought to the screen by Pham Quang Vinh and Nguyen Dan Nam's production design and Pham Quang Minh's camerawork, provide a beauty which heightens  Huyen's mundane existence, as her adolescence (and possibly adulthood) flutter away into nothingness.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Critics' Week); Toronto International Film Festival (Discovery)

Production companies: VBLOCK Media, with Cine Sud Promotion, Filmfarms, Filmallee

Cast: Nguyen Thuy Anh, Hoang Ha, Tran Bao Son, Thanh Duy

Director: Nguyen Hoang Diep

Screenwriter: Nguyen Hoang Diep

Producers: Alan Milligan, David Lindner Leporda, Thierry Lenouvel, Nguyen Hoang Diep

 Director of photography: Pham Quang Minh

Production designer: Pham Quang Vinh, Nguyen Dan Nam

Costume designer: Nguyen Diem Huong

Editor: Gustavo Vasco, Jacques Comets

Music: Pierre Aviat

International Sales: Premium Films

In Vietnamese

No rating; 98 minutes