Floating Lives--Film Review



BUSAN, South Korea -- An elegiac, lyrical tale of a nomadic Vietnamese family whose lives are changed when they take in a prostitute, "Floating Lives" is a model of solid, old-fashioned filmmaking.

First and foremost a sensual experience of breathtaking scenery that also reflects the story's shifting moods, the film is constantly gentle flowing movement, like the Mekong River that is the soul of the story, as well as a metaphor for the characters' lives.

"Floating Lives" belongs to a recent wave of beautifully lensed, tastefully erotic Vietnamese films (like "Adrift," "Bi, Don"t Be Afraid") that are gaining visibility in festivals. Nguyen Phan Quang Binh's narrative grammar is more traditional and coherent. Frequent spots in festivals might be followed by niche distribution in Europe, especially France.

Adapted from the novel "Boundless Rice Field" by Nguyen Thi Ngoc Tu, the film takes place in Vietnam at the height of the Bird Flu but its natural backdrop and the protagonists" situations have a timeless quality. Vo (Dustin Nguyen), daughter Nuong and son Dien live on a boat, drifting from one rice field to the next, rearing ducks and offering handyman jobs. When Suong (Do Thi Hai Yen), a hooker jumps into their boat to evade an angry mob, Nuong and Dien welcome her as a surrogate mother and object of pubescent fantasy, respectively. A volatile relationship develops between Suong and Vo. Eventually, it is revealed that Vo's wife cheated on him and ran away in shame.

Despite its lush setting and literary roots, the representation of human cruelty and depravity is quite unsettling. The opening shot is of a female lynch mob doing something very painful to Suong with steel glue, and the denouement involves a gang rape. The government order for mass killing of ducks further intimates an atmosphere of catastrophe and the harshness of survival.

None of this compares with the piercing, relentless representation of Vo's psychological cruelty to his children and to Suong. Through him, one not only learns how bitterness and the refusal to forgive destroy any capacity for love or joy, one also sees the devastating effects it has on those around him. 

The characters' grueling experiences and the director's occasional heaviness in handling the drama are alleviated by the dreamlike landscape of lotus fields and billowing reeds. They exist not just as an aesthetic adornment but remind one that beauty exists, and happiness is still possible, as the moving ending manifests.

Gruffly handsome Nguyen ("21 Jump Street") makes his grunts and sighs convey the pain of someone who still desires women physically but hates them for making him feel that way. His image recalls Harry Dean Stanton's in "Paris, Texas." Other performances are equally penetrating. Do lifts her role from the cliche of the hooker with a heart of gold by revealing a Jezebel streak that makes her a foil for Vo's wife.

Pusan International Film Festival, New Currents

Production: Vietnam Studio.

Cast: Dustin Nguyen, Do Thi Hai Yen, Ninh Duong Lan Ngoc, Tang Thanh Ha.

Director: Nguyen Phan Quang Binh. 

Screenwriter: Nguy Ngu. 

Producer: Ngo Thi Bich Hanh. 

Director of photography: Nguyen Tranh. 

Art director: Ma Phi Hai. 

Music: Nguyen Quoc Trung.

Editor: Folmer Weisinger. 

Sales: Vietnam Media Corp. 

No MPAA rating, 113 minutes.