The Vertical Ray of the Sun

(A la Verticale de l'ete)

Do not go into The Vertical Ray of the Sun expecting any sort of tight plotting or story. That is not what the movie is about. It is about mood and tone, and the lack of plot brings forth elements people usually ignore. This is the third film for writer/director Tran Anh Hung (after The Scent of Green Papaya and Cyclo), and is a hypnotic look at one month in the life of a Vietnamese family. Tran focuses more on ambient noise than anything else, and as a result it feels as if the viewer is in Vietnam with these people. The chirping of birds is in almost every scene. The actors fan themselves slowly, walking around with a sheen of sweat on their brow. The humidity is palpable. Every morning, Lien (Tran Nu Yen-Khe) wakes up to an alarm and the music of Lou Reed plays in the background. Reed's smooth voice and laid back music only accentuate the calm, serene atmosphere.

While Lien stretches lazily in bed, her brother Hai (Ngo Quang Hai, Three Seasons, Song of the Stork) does calisthenics. They work in a small cafe with their two older sisters, Suong (Nguyen Nhu Quynh, Cyclo) and Khanh (Le Khanh). Tran portrays life for the family as deceptively low-key. It takes time for their problems to emerge on the screen, and even after they do, the tension never feels high. It seems that Hai's biggest problem is his sister creeping into his bed to stay warm during the night. Through all of this, Tran slowly reveals that the entire family unit is crumbling. Suong's husband Quoc (Chu Hung, Cyclo, Indochine) is cheating on her, as is Khanh's husband Kien (Tran Manh Cuong, Three Seasons, Cyclo). Lien is not married, but beginning to worry about finding a husband.

In a way, Lien, Suong, and Khanh are all aspects of one woman at different stages in life. Lien is the youngest, preparing for marriage. Khanh is the next youngest, with a few years of marriage under her. The eldest is Suong, who has a young child with Quoc. Each is facing similar issues with trust and with the future. Yet Tran frames it in such a way that real anger or frustration rises to the surface only infrequently. It seems that no matter what happens, everything will be okay. And deep down, these sisters realize this. So they still go about their daily routines, lovingly shot by Tran as series of memorable sequences, like moving paintings. Lien dances slowly to the music. Lien and Hai run through the heavy rain. Even a simple task like washing one's hands is a sumptuous feast for the eyes. With the screen as his canvas, Tran creates wonderful visuals, which makes The Vertical Ray of the Sun worth the trip.

Mongoose Rates It: Not Bad.
1 hour, 52 minutes, Vietnamese with English subtitles, Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and some sex-related material.

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