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'The Vertical Ray of the Sun'

A sunny exterior: Siblings want to keep the truth under wraps in 'The Vertical Ray of the Sun'

Friday, September 21, 2001

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

"Hanoi and Her Sisters" might have been the title of this film, had Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung had a flippant American streak -- which he does not. He does, however, have a quirky sense of humor, as do some if not all of the three sisters and lone brother whose intersecting passions constitute the heart of his tale.

 
    'THE VERTICAL RAY OF THE SUN'

RATING: PG-13 for sensuality and infidelity themes

STARRING: Tran Nu Yen Khe, Nguyen Nhu Quynh, Le Khanh, Ngo Quang Hai

DIRECTOR: Tran Anh Hung

Critic's call:

 
 

This "Vertical Ray of the Sun" is a sumptuous, sensual affair -- a quartet of affairs, in fact -- set in contemporary Hanoi among a group of artists and writers: Lien (Tran Nu Yen Khe) is a waitress in the little cafe owned by her older sister Suong (Nguyen Nhu Quynh). Lien shares an apartment -- and more than a little incestuous attraction -- with their handsome brother Hai (Ngo Quang Hai), a diffident young actor with whom she constantly flirts and cavorts. Rounding out these sexy siblings is middle sister Khanh (Le Khanh), who is married to blocked-up novelist Kien (Tran Manh Cuong).

On the 10th anniversary of their mother's death, the girls meet at Suong's cafe to prepare the family's traditional memorial banquet. But in the process of remembering and idealizing their parents' harmonious relationship, they're forced to confront the fact that perhaps it wasn't quite so harmonious after all.

Neither are their own romantic relationships, peppered with infidelities. One is drawn back to an old affair. The husband of another has a secret wife and child. A mysterious woman in a Saigon hotel tempts a second spouse. Writer Kien, with his investigative instincts, wants to find out the truth about the girls' parents. The sisters want to leave it alone.

Director Hung has said he was inspired by certain calm, dreamy afternoons in his childhood that were disturbed by the sound of his parents arguing: "The art of keeping up appearances" could be the subtitle, he says, of a story about appearances in all senses of the word -- exterior social appearances, the physical beauty of the country and the people, gorgeous images piled one upon another by master cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-Bin. Especially lovely is the restrained, gauzy, early-morning eroticism of brother and sister waking up in one another's beds.

Separately and collectively, such swooningly beautiful visuals mask the emotional turbulence beneath. Hung's delicate, often melancholy probing of those appearances will eventually get near (if not all the way to) the truth. In that process, he is aided by a very good cast who co-invented their characters with what he calls "the permanent playful smile of something left unspoken."

An intriguing musical element adds to the atmosphere. In addition to current Vietnamese songs by Trinh Cong Son and Ton That Thiet, good ironic use is made of Lou Reed's "Coney Island Baby" and Velvet Underground's "Pale Blue Eyes" to comment on the action.

At 112 minutes, in Vietnamese with English subtitles, there may be a few too many throbbingly hot rays here, but put on a little mental sunscreen first and you'll be fine.

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