Image from ‘Inside The Yellow Cocoon Shell’ • Courtesy

In director Phạm Thiên Ân’s Inside The Yellow Cocoon Shell, Thiện, a young drifter in Saigon, is troubled by a mundane existentialism that leaves him withdrawn and indifferent to the rhythms of everyday life. Originally from the countryside, he ekes out a living as a wedding videographer helping others capture and distill their milestones while seemingly having none of his own. We aren’t exactly sure what’s got him down and out, but we get the sense he feels trapped in a web of unfulfilled prospects and disappointment.

On a bustling night during the 2018 World Cup, his two friends debate the divine over drinks and hot pot, the scene punctuated by uproar from crowds fixated on the live broadcasts. When his friends turn to ask Thiện for his opinion, he gives a half-hearted non-answer: he is in search of his faith but can’t find it, leaving him in a limbic state between piety and apostasy. Should he keep searching? Should he give up?

His friends encourage him to settle his doubts — one suggesting he return to the country, shed his worldly attachments, and find the divine once more, the other proclaiming that superstition and faith are backwards and have no place in their modern world. A series of odd coincidences take place. Things seem to just happen without any rhyme or reason, like a moped collision that kills two people just across the road. Thiện meanwhile can’t be bothered to even look over.

The men partake in escapist pleasures to numb themselves to their dull lot in life. All the while, someone is trying to get a hold of Thiện over the phone; he ignores the incessant ringing. While out receiving an illicit massage, he remarks to the masseuse that it’s God calling him.

When Thiện finally picks up his phone, he learns of a family tragedy that reels him back into the world he’d been so distant from. Call it divine intervention. His sister-in-law Hạnh has suddenly died, leaving Thiện the sole caretaker of his nephew Đạo. His brother Tâm, Hạnh’s husband, is nowhere to be found, long absent for unknown reasons.

As the only next of kin available, Thiện is tasked to return home with Đạo and Hạnh’s casket to begin the funeral rites. The film then pulls us along Thiện and Đạo’s nomadic trek across the rural countryside. Thiện has chance encounters with kind strangers as he settles back into a hometown he hasn’t seen in ages.

Phạm Thiên Ân’s directorial debut develops into a quiet, mellow conversation about one lost person’s case of existentialism and an uneven, winding journey to find one’s spirituality and answers for his lethargy and ennui. Thiện’s travels take us along broad vistas of misted mountains, curling rivers, and slumbering towns buried in the valleys alive with history —captivating visuals oozing tranquility and gentle melancholy.

Image from ‘Inside The Yellow Cocoon Shell’ • Courtesy

As the funeral gets underway, Thiện is reminded of his sister-in-law’s devout Catholicism. Pastors continue to sermonize through storms, and Thiện gets lost in the ceremonies, rituals, and traditions. Grand shots of long processions, raw human movement, make for stunning, if not humbling imagery that show how small Thiện’s isolated world had just been in the bustling cityscapes of Saigon.

Everyone around Thiện seems to have found their faith and moved on while he is still juggling with his. In one instance, a visit to an elderly village man who helped with the funeral turns into a long recounting about days gone by fighting the National Liberation Front (Việt Cộng) as a soldier in the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam). This simple errand slowly turns into a rumination on the meaning of life and death and finding a sense of purpose after loss and tragedy.

Once Hạnh is finally laid to rest, Thiện decides it’s time for him to find his brother. Rumors abound that Tâm has since established a new life in another remote village in the Central Highlands. There’s no guarantee Thiện will find him, but he resolves to do so in spite of the uncertainty ahead. Thiện sees it as a test of his faith.

Perspective plays a major role in framing each of Thiện’s encounters. We are often viewing scenes through materials such as fogged glass, linens, and drapes that reflect or refract characters in scene and out of frame. In other instances, the environment becomes our viewframe. Camera movements are austere and used sparingly, and the wide static shots can invoke the structure of a stage play or theater with the main characters in the foreground and the lively movement of teeming masses framing them in the background. This is especially evident in the film’s early moments.

When camera movement is used, Phạm establishes a strong sense of place with an initial wide perspective then directs the camera into intimate moments with excruciating detail without any cuts. Or in the opposite: we start from a small conversation then pan out to an expansive landscape that had been hiding in plain sight.

Using gradual camera movement to open up and close space around Thiện is evocative and impressive.

However, by the final third of the film Thiện’s journey slows down a great deal. The dialogue in the film is already limited, so by this final act interactions between characters begin to feel desolate. Thiện also becomes a largely silent character that has faded away in his own story. As the audience, we are left to interpret his inner feelings and thoughts. Outside of his melancholic exterior and muted performance, we also don’t immediately see how else his inner turmoil is affecting him.

Film poster for ‘Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell’ • Courtesy

The dialogue is meant to feel naturalistic, but many long pauses and silence from Thiện has a tendency to make these scenes less vivid and harder to believe. While perhaps tense and necessarily awkward, the sparse dialogue at times presents Thiện as more of a blank slate and passive absorber of the all people he meets. If all else, Thiện has been nothing but a good student and listener of the stories around him.

But we know from other instances that he is not colorless. Thiện has a few tricks up his sleeve and there are some tender, magic moments between an uncle and his orphaned nephew. However, these moments are more far and few between than initially anticipated. Đạo’s role in the story also comes to a close mid-way in his uncle’s sojourn.

With regards to themes, the film never makes it explicit about what has sent Thiện into this struggle with faith. We get only a little backstory into his life. The opening scenes hint that Thiện is grappling with a form of malaise and is reacting to widespread nihilism and pessimism. However if it’s this alone, then it leaves the core dilemma feeling unsubstantiated. What was Thiện like prior to coming to Saigon? It’s hard to say when he is already given such little dialogue with other characters (with the exception of Đạo).

Long shots of wilderness make up a large part of the film’s later half. These segments go on without much movement and feel more like visual melodrama. Maybe the intent was to entrance the audience in Thiện’s solitary meditations and show how he is in communion with the wider world. But in this late phase, the dip in momentum, even for a work of slow cinema, made it difficult to follow the already meandering plot.

We continue to get snippets of interactions between Thiện and strangers, but again these follow a similar pattern where Thiện remains a mostly silent listener. The story inches along till the final moments where Thiện emerges from his spiritual metamorphosis, though we are not sure exactly where he lands –another moment for us to interpret ourselves.

Overall, Inside The Yellow Cocoon Shell presents a compelling dilemma from the onset of a man grappling with his search for faith amid a family tragedy. There are many interesting encounters and moments, as well as intangibly sublime imagery and creative use of perspective and camerawork that feels unique. But as the film evolves into its final act, its core stylistic choices and strengths can get lost in extended, laborious moments and sparse character dialogue that saps away the subtlety and already slow dynamism.

To date, the film has garnered much prestige. It has been nominated for many awards and won Best First Feature at Cannes. I think many Vietnamese and other Southeast Asians can feel proud of this work making international milestones. At the same time the film’s heavily-subdued characterization and smoldering-incense pace may not appeal to everyone.

Inside The Yellow Cocoon asks us to ride with Thiện, listen closely, and share in his small revelations. The patient and discerning viewer will appreciate this memorable and philosophical piece that will leave a lingering impression.

‘Inside The Yellow Cocoon Shell’ opens March 6-10 at the NW Film Forum.    

Previous article‘Chinese Prodigal’ orbits familial ties, but overlooks class relations
Next articleNEWS BRIEFS: Betsuin Buddhist Temple recovering from arson, new Little Saigon park opening delayed