Friday, July 01, 2016

NYAFF ’16: Yellow Flowers on Green Grass

Young love never ends well, but in this case, more than hearts get broken. Consider this fair warning: it will be downright painful to watch misunderstandings metastasize into corrosive jealousy. The results are tragic for two rural Vietnamese brothers in Victor Vu’s adaptation of Nguyen Nhat Anh’s YA novel, Yellow Flowers on Green Grass (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 New York Asian Film Festival.

Thieu is the older brother, but in many ways he is the more awkward and insecure one. Nevertheless, Tuong duly looks up to his older sibling and often covers for his mistakes. At least Thieu is an excellent student, who might be able to study his way to a better life. However, he is pretty clueless when it comes to girls. Everyone knows he has a crush on the somewhat younger but cherubically cute Moon. Yet, his early attempts to woo her are woefully embarrassing. Somehow he seems to make a little progress, until outside events get in the way.

Poor Moon is in for a rough patch. Her missing father is presumed to have contracted leprosy and her family’s home is damaged in a fire. When she temporarily moves in with Thieu’s family, it ought to be a golden opportunity for the love-struck lad. Instead, Moon’s rapport with the bratty Tuong, who happens to be closer to her age, leads to miscommunication and resentment on Thieu’s part.

Thanh Mỹ and Trng Kang are so sweetly innocent looking as Moon and Tuong, it really hurts to watch them suffer Thieu’s escalating tantrums. Sadly though, it is all rather believable, thanks in large measure to Thinh Vinh’s agonizingly realistic lead performance. Yet, Vu and co-screenwriter Viet Linh allow for the possibility of hope and redemption through an escape hatch of apparent magical realism.

All the young cast-members of Yellow Flowers are frighteningly effective, including the three principals, as well as Mỹ Anh, who plays Nhi, a distressed young girl who happens to bear a close resemblance to Moon. They are always deeply in character, expressing some raw emotions. On the other hand, hardly any of the adults registers to any significant extent, but what can you expect? This film is W.C. Fields’ worst nightmare, except instead of a dog, Tuong has a pet toad.

Dramatically and aesthetically, Yellow Flowers is somewhat akin to the films of the Iranian New Wave. While it focuses on children, the themes and imagery are probably best appreciated by mature viewers. K’Linh Nguyen rich yet delicate lensing also brings to mind Mark Lee Ping-Bing’s masterful work with Tran Anh Hung, which is high praise indeed. Vu has had his share of controversies over the last few years, but he should rebound decisively with this pastoral fable. Recommended for those who appreciate the beauty in tragedy, Yellow Flowers on Green Grass screens tomorrow (7/2) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.