Friday, January 19, 2024

Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell

Even though it is stuck with a Communist regime, Vietnam also represents the fifth largest Catholic nation in Asia (by population) and maintains unofficial but not horrible relations with the Vatican. Thien’s sister-in-law is a Vietnamese Catholic, or at least she was. Her untimely death forces him to take temporary responsibility for his nephew and launches him on his own search for some kind of higher sense of things in director-screenwriter Pham Thien An’s Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell, which opens today in New York.

Compared to his two drinking buddies, Thien is clearly the most materialistic, but none of them pays much attention to the fatal motor-scooter accident that happens right in front of their beer-garden. Later, Thien learns that his sister-in-law Teresa perished in the collision, so he must escort his nephew Dao back to her home village. He is the little boy’s only family left in Saigon, since his father (Thien’s brother) Tam apparently vanished several years ago.

Caring for Dao somewhat reawakens Thien’s familial instincts. Participating in Teresa’s Catholic service also makes him mindful of certain ironies. Originally, Tam studied for the priesthood, but he was advised to marry instead. In contrast, Thien still carries a torch for his old flame, Thao, who has moved on, taking nun’s orders and teaching at the nearest Catholic school. Perhaps resolving to finally become his brother’s keeper, Thien sets out to find the long-lost Tam, as an act of atonement or familial duty.

It is hard to target an audience to recommend
Yellow Cocoon to, because its long-take, Slow Cinema pacing will be challenging for many folks and especially for those who might otherwise appreciate its themes of faith and family. Yet, the film’s Catholic sensibilities might make fans of Slow Cinema itchy and uncomfortable.

For many Americans,
Yellow Cocoon will also subvert assumptions, as when Thien visits a Vietnam War veteran in Teresa’s village. As the conversation progresses, it becomes clear the old man fought for the South against the Viet Cong, which makes sense, given the region’s predominant Catholicism.

Several scenes are indeed visually arresting, like the POV-motorbike drive through fog-shrouded streets that is gets a little scary as it moves into some winding turns. Pham’s signature technique (as of one film) is his use of the slow, almost imperceptible zoom-in on characters in intimate conversation. He plays that card four or five times, often quite effectively.

Pham and cinematographer Dinh Duy Hung have crafted a beautifully looking film (that fully capitalizes on the verdant country landscape). It also addresses some serious moral themes in a subtle and challenging way. Recommended for fans of Tarkovsky’s more religiously pronounced films,
Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell opens today (1/19) in New York.