A luminous critique of the rising tide of consumerism engulfing South East Asia , director Phan Dang Di’s Big Father, Small Father and Other Stories (2015) contrasts the arresting natural beauty of the Vietnamese countryside with the gaudy neon-lit humidity of Saigon during the dawning of the new millennium. A visually opulent and highly atmospheric mood piece, the film’s disjointed narrative about the dovetailing lives of a group of young men encompasses too wide a scope, with shifting attitudes towards same-sex couples, state interference and paternal bonds clouding an otherwise powerful study of the geneses of contemporary Vietnamese society.
Opening in Saigon in the late nineties, not long after the lifting of the US trade embargo, photography student Vu (Le Cong Hoang) rents a room in a shared flat with bar&nman Thang (Truong The Vinh). With his new camera (a gift from his fisherman father) he begins to capture the changing world around him, including the sleazy bar where Thang prepares cocktails for the young men and women who swarm to the newly liberated city to indulge in its lurid nightlife and commercial decadence. Other members of the group include a musician named Tung (Mai Quoc Viet) his sister Mai (Thanh Tu), and a factory worker, Cuong (Truong Van Hoang) who lies about having children so he can receive government money for having a vasectomy; all so he can buy his girlfriend a brand-new cellphone.
One evening, a gang Tung owes protection money to assaults him. Vu, Cuong and Thang hurry to his rescue but all four are forced to flee to Vu’s father’s house in the Mekong Delta, where his father introduces Vu to his prospective wife. However, Vu has little interest in the girl having developed a crush on Thang. Effortlessly capturing the ennui of a nation innocently succumbing to the suppression of materialism Big Father depicts a deeply poetic love story unfurling against the backdrop of a country wresting with its newfound identity. Phan employs taboos about homosexuality with shocking tales of state interference to paint a damning portrait of how foreign investment, and economic deregulation have caused a rise in social inequality and gender disparity in contemporary Vietnam. Phan also utilizes subtle symbolic imagery from the natural landscape of the muddy jungles of the Mekong as metaphors for complex emotions and generational disparity. However the film’s strongest asset is the sumptuous cinematography of Nguyen K’Linh, layering the film with an extremely sensual aesthetic, effortless juxtaposing the wet, stifling Eden-like atmosphere of the Mekong with the lurid perspiration of downtown Saigon.
Read on an entirely superficial level Big Father, is merely another tale of disenfranchised youth, with sexuality used to construct a visible conflict between generations. However, through various plot strands, each vying to become more prominent and emblematic than the other, the focus begins to drift sideways, culminating in a loss of authorial control, and a disappointing abdication of intent. Clearly Phan believes that such a broad exploration of national identity cannot be achieved through the subjectivity of a single protagonist, yet allowing the overlapping lives of a broad range of characters to become densely entwined within one another only gives a hazy impression of each’s intentions. This ultimately limits the emotional and social impact of the dissection of national identity; an agenda clearly reinforced by the literally ‘revealing’ climax on the surgeon’s operating table
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Patrick Gamble | @PatrickJGamble