VERTICAL RAY OF THE SUN (Mua he chieu thang dung)
Directed by Tran Anh Hung (2000)
In Tran Anh Hung's lovely tone poem The Vertical Ray of the Sun, three sisters Lien (Tran Nu Yn-Kh), Suong (Nhu Quynh Nguyen), and Khanh (Le Lhanh) on the eve of memorial dinners for their departed parents reveal previously hidden details to each other about their marital infidelity. It is the end of summer in Hanoi and the atmosphere is languid. These are not the mean streets of Saigon in Tran's Cyclo but the elegant abode of Hanoi's artists and intellectuals, devoid of urban decay, intimately bathed in color and pastoral beauty. The opening scene sets the mood. The youngest sister, 19-year old Lien slowly awakens in the apartment she shares with her brother Hai (Quang Hai Ngo). As Hai does push-ups, lien stretches, her graceful Tai Chi movements beautifully choreographed to the rhythm of The Velvet Underground.
They joke about the fact that outsiders see them as a couple as they walk hand-in-hand through the markets, but Lien does nothing to discourage this perception and is shown crawling into bed with her brother each night. The sisters operate a caf and the conversation is as steamy as is the food they are preparing for the annual memorial dinner for their departed mother. Cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-Bin who filmed Flowers of Shanghai and In the Mood for Love washes the scene in a glow of different shades of green as they joke and tell stories about their longing to fry the male anatomy in garlic. The discussion veers to a discussion of their mother's possible infidelity with a fellow student but they are reluctant to admit that their parent's relationship may have been less than ideal.
Gradually we also learn about the sisters' marital problems. Suong is married to Quoc (Chu Hung), a botanical photographer. Since they had a miscarriage four years prior, he has had a secret life with another woman in the remote Bay of Halong. In one meditative scene in a boat with an old fisherman, Quoc sums up the meaning of the film, "One should live where one's soul is in harmony, where it is in accord with its surroundings". When he is away on trips visiting his second family, Suong carries on an affair with Tuan (Le Tuen Anh) out of a need to feel loved and wanted. Khanh's husband is Kien (Tran Manh Cuong), a writer who is working on finishing his first novel.
After finding out that his wife is pregnant, he almost betrays her in a Saigon hotel, but remains faithful. Lien, meanwhile, nave about sexuality, has a boyfriend and thinks she is pregnant simply because she had sex one time. The family deals with these problems together, viewing them as an opportunity for forgiveness and growth rather than confrontation. Vertical Ray of the Sun is a sensual experience that unfolds in its own time, a pace geared to an Asian timetable not a Western one. It is a film of ineffable beauty but can be confusing on first viewing with multiple characters, frequent jump cuts, and time discontinuity.
Individual scenes stand out in memory: Khanh singing a traditional Vietnamese song alone in the garden and Kien's loving discovery of her secret (how gratifying it is to see a romantic scene between married couples); Lien's slow dance in her apartment to The Velvet Underground, her long black hair glistening in the sun; and Lien's playful seduction of Hai interrupted by his request for boiled sweet potatoes. Though concerned with extra marital affairs, the film is not about infidelity but the intrusive effects of modern society on Asian family life. In Vertical Ray of the Sun, he has created an antidote -- an aesthetic picture of a Vietnam unsullied by the memory of war, a culture of nature and tradition, encompassing the Buddhist value of compassion and the Confucian ideal of harmony. It may exist, however, only in his vision.