There has been some critical sniping about the supposed compromises Bui had to make with the Vietnamese government in order to get permission to film. And to be sure, this is not the blistering portrait of the Hanoi government that many in the Vietnamese diaspora would like to see. But Bui's avoidance of controversy works to the film's advantage; or rather, it gives the film its dreamy nature. Though it does give a powerful sense of the scruffy excitement and visual richness available in present-day Ho Chi Minh City, this is not a particularly realistic work, at least in terms of its characters' motivations. Instead, it is a meditation on redemption and rebirth, notions which so entrance Bui that he presents them over and over, in four separate, lightly intertwined stories.
One plot strand has a lotus harvester, Kien An (Nguyen Ngoc Hiep), drawn toward the forbidding house of "Teacher Dao," who owns the lake she and her fellow harvesters draw their blossoms from. Teacher Dao (Manh Cuong Tran) hears Kien An singing on the lake one day (to the annoyance of her fellow workers, who think she hasn't been working the pond long enough to lead them in song). Teacher Dao is a former poet of distinction (though the poems cited here don't entirely convince of his greatness) who is now crumbling away with leprosy, which has claimed his fingers. He won't show his devoured face in public, and now he's denied the private pleasure of writing as well. Kien An volunteers to be his fingers, to write down the poems Teacher Dao still carries in his head.
Kien An is only the first character here who is eager to turn over her life to the service of a fellow human. Hai (Don Duong) is a cyclo (or bicycle-rickshaw) driver who falls in love with a hard-bitten prostitute, Lan (Zoe Bui). He ends every sweltering day on the street waiting for her to emerge from the hotel where she has turned her last trick and then convinces her to let him pedal her home one more time. Hai winds up devoting his life to Lan long before she wants him to. Admittedly, Hai is powered by the familiar emotion of love, or even lust, and his surrender of his life is therefore a bit less altruistic than Kien An's, who only wants to take the teacher's dictation. But Hai's love is presented as so pure that his gift of himself does become as total as is Kien An's. When he finally scrapes together enough money to spend the night with Lan, he wants only to watch her sleep.
By all rights, the characters of Kien An and Hai should be utterly cloying. But Bui approaches them with a purity of heart and intent that matches that of his characters. He believes in his human angels, and he presents them with so much technical command and visual beauty that I believed in them as well. Anyway, are these down-and-outers with hearts of gold really any less realistic than the hipster gangsters of post-Tarantino Hollywood?
Filmgoers should not even mind the lack of originality behind the characters and their admittedly thin story lines. Yes, Teacher Dao and Kien An remind of Beauty and the Beast and the Phantom of the Opera. And the hooker with a heart of gold's spiritual ancestors reach back even farther.
In another story line, Woody (Nguyen Huu Duoc), a kid who sells cigarettes on the street, has his cigarette box stolen and must search through Saigon's apparently perpetual rains in search of his one piece of valuable property. I thought, "Bui's doing The Bicycle Thief here," and he certainly was. But Bui is so open about his sources, and so unselfconscious, so resolutely unhip, that his borrowings give great pleasure and are highly reassuring.
Bui stumbles on only one of his plotlines. Harvey Keitel as James Hager wanders around the city in a drunken fog, looking for the daughter he left behind. Bui's heart isn't in this one, leaving the feeling that Keitel's appearance is a favor to the young filmmaker, who surely needed a recognizable name to get any kind of Hollywood funding.
Lisa Rinzler's truly ravishing cinematography is the best aspect of the movie. If this weren't such a beautiful film, the thinness of the characters would indeed be a problem. But Rinzler and Bui make them feel like the flat characters of a painting, so you don't expect the usual doses of psychology and back story. In fact, you don't want those elements, or anything else that will interfere with the reverie the film inspires.
Directed by Tony Bui. With Don Duong, Nguyen Ngoc Hiep, Manh Cuong Tran, Nguyen Huu Duoc and Harvey Keitel.