Here...or There?: Busan Film Review

A mind-boggler about cultural dislocation with a Gallic sensibility.

Actor-writer-editor Jean-Luc Mello creates a metaphysical film-within-a-film that showcases his talents while exploring small town or suburban life in Vietnam.

For a film on cultural dislocation and "being" as a relative concept, Here or There? is all over the place conceptually. Vietnamese director Siu Pham's feature about a Frenchman, who is simultaneously in several places and meta-filmic dimensions, is too weird to be taken seriously, and not witty enough in its whimsy to charm. The film exists predominantly to showcase actor-writer-editor Jean-Luc Mello's antics, which amuse and puzzle like a mime show performed by a sleepwalking surrealist.

Strikingly visualized and not without curiosity value, the film should catch the eye of a critic here or a programmer there, as long as they don't mind the film-within-a-film chestnut. French audiences are more inclined to grasp some culturally specific nuance or simply enjoy its je ne sais quoi.

The narrative just extends over one day, though the scenes and people's actions feel deliberately more disjointed. A Frenchman (Mello) wakes up in his house. Concurrently, he is riding around town in a motorbike, fishing and adrift in the sea. Interspersing these scenes are voice-over dialogues between the Frenchman and his Vietnamese wife about the disruptive construction of a shrine for "forsaken spirits" next door. The wife's fruitless search for him around town, his unnoticed presence around her and visitations by her dead relatives prompt one to infer he is dead. Otherwise, one is a doppelgänger. But which one?

Both interpretations are compounded by another development, whereby he is a filmmaker scouting for a body double for his wife in a massage parlor. A titillating scene happens on the casting couch with naked masseuse Hoa. By the final scene, which reunites every character at the dinner table, it is possible everything has been a shoot.

Living abroad and being married to a local wife makes the protagonist an outsider and insider at the same time. By choosing to visualize this state of mind in an abstract manner, Siu achieves moments of poetry and imagination, such as a scene with synchronized swimmers. Most of the time though the scenes feel improvised and are too head-scratching to sustain interest.

Particularly cryptic is the recurrence of situations in which the Frenchman gets wet, like floating in the sea, dipping into a Jacuzzi with his clothes on and getting splashed with a bucket of water. “He must get wet in every scene,”said a crew member in the meta-film segment. The only clue to this mysterious trope is the opening shot of a frog spread out against a glass pane, perhaps suggesting a joke about frog and Frenchman.

The locations reflect small town or suburban life in Vietnam with authenticity and visual interest, providing a refreshing alternative to the usual exotic, romanticized celluloid images of the country. Radical color juxtapositions of shades of lime and green apple with pink and pomegranate add a touch of fantasy.  The choice of music is cool and eclectic.

Venue: Busan International Film Festival, New Currents

Production companies: HK Film, Sunny Independent Picture

Cast: Jean-Luc Mello, Tu Mai Dang, Vinh Son Nguyen

Director: Siu Pham

Screenwriter-editor: Jean-Luc Mello

Producer: Vinh Son Nguyen

Director of photography: Cong Danh Phan

Music-editor: Jamasp Jhabvala

Editor: Julie Beziau

Sales: Vietnam Media Corp

No rating, 91 minutes

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