Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell review – slow cinema gem is a wonderful meditation on faith and death | Movie

TThe question of what the title means or what the film means remains open; nonetheless, this is an utterly astonishing feature debut from Vietnam-born, Houston, Texas-based Thien An Pham, 34. It’s a gem of slow cinema set first in Saigon and then in the lush, mountainous central highlands, far from the city; it’s an epic weightless quest, floating toward its strange narrative destiny, then perhaps floating above toward something else. It’s compassionate, intimate, spiritual and mysterious in a way that reminded me of Tsai Ming-liang or Edward Yang.

Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell is presented in a calm, realistic style, with many long, uninterrupted mid-distance shots, with close-ups rare. There is a flashback and a dream sequence presented in exactly the same way, leading to the dizzy feeling that past and present, reality and reverie are folding into each other. The refusal of explicit emotion doesn’t preclude a fiercely erotic kiss scene, or a moment where a young woman declares her adoration for Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life and wonders aloud, “Why can’t they anymore make films like that? I can actually imagine Bob Rafelson making this film in 1972 (at half the length) with the same narrative structure, the same elements of male mid-life crisis and regret.

In the noisy and bustling city, Thien (Le Phong Vu) is quietly discussing religious faith and the meaning of life on a café terrace with his friends when they are stunned by a deafening motorcycle accident a few meters away. Her last session in a massage parlor is tragicomically interrupted by a call on her smartphone. The victim of this accident turns out to be his sister-in-law, Hanh, whose five-year-old son, Dao (Nguyen Thinh), miraculously survived. It is now Thien’s duty to take Hanh’s coffined body in a rented van to his home village to bury him (along with little Dao as well).

It’s also her own hometown and that of her brother, Tam, Hanh’s husband, who ran away after her and her son years ago. Thien must report to Thao (Nguyen Thi Truc Quynh), a young woman from this village with whom he had a romantic relationship; she could help him do something for poor little Dao, whose grief towards his mother we can only guess at. He also has to find his brother on the run and… what? Announce the news? Use this tragedy as a path to reconciliation? Or make sense of one’s own life and one’s place in a vast and placidly indifferent world?

The camera drifts and turns with the slow deliberation of an aircraft carrier: characters will move out of view and continue talking off-screen until the camera catches up with them and they come back into frame. A still painting will turn out to be an almost imperceptibly slow zoom. Thien has some striking encounters: an old man who once fought with the South Vietnamese in Battle of Vung Ro, and an old woman as enigmatic as a ghost. An entire sequence is simply Thien’s point of view, in silence, as he rides his scooter on roads where the headlights of oncoming traffic flare in a glare that fills the screen.

Thien is broken? Or are these recent, desperately sad events simply giving voice to a depression he might have had anyway? If Hanh hadn’t died, wouldn’t he have continued his anonymous and unfulfilling life in the city, and never thought of contacting Thao or Tam again? The panoramic intelligence of this film is a marvel.

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Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell is at the ICA London from March 8.

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