No One can fully Empathize with the Soul…It is beyond Human ComprehensionOld Woman in the Film
Some films take you on a journey whether you like it or not and then there are films that slowly invite you to join in as the main character embarks on a journey. The latter is more powerful as we are choosing to do so. Thien An Pham‘s directorial feature debut Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell falls into this space. An Pham takes us on a spiritual journey by exploring rural Vietnam with themes relating to life, death, love, desire, loss, and regrets as he beautifully captures the tone, atmosphere, and environment with his observational directing style. The story is simple and at times takes a back seat but the stunning visuals and the experiences that change the main character can be very reflective to the audience.
The film kicks off with An Pham’s signature long take where we observe a street-style football match being played in the background and a conversation between two players. The camera then follows a mascot to a nearby restaurant where a group of friends are having dinner and drinks outside when suddenly they hear a loud noise followed by people screaming. The camera pans slowly to the right and reveals that two people on motorbikes collided with each other and may have died from the injuries. There was a kid who survived the crash. The main character Thien (Le Phong Vu) then goes with his friends for some steam sauna and massages but has to leave when he receives a call from his family. The woman who died in the bike crash is Thien’s sister-in-law. He goes to the hospital and checks on his nephew Dao (Nguyen Thinh) and is forced to take care of him while starting a grief-filled journey with his sister-in-law’s body back to his hometown in a remote village.
Dao clings on to Thien like he would his own dad and Thien decides he needs to search for his brother who had left the family years ago. Thien seems very disconnected from everyone he comes in contact with. He feeds a bird who later dies, his nephew asks him questions on faith and the universe and Thien has no answer for him that will stop him from asking more questions. He meets up with his old friend whom he loved years ago who is a nun (Nguyen Thi Truc Quynh) now but they both seem to be distanced by their ideas of the lives they are living in the present. This is when Thien begins to realize that he needs to fix his life, he needs to have a purpose, he needs to reunite Dao with his dad and he misses his brother a lot. He knows the perilous journey he needs to take to redeem himself, and maybe find some peace and solace after all the grief he had to endure.
The long takes added a lot of depth to the storytelling. As Thien goes into the rural areas, the often foggy misty shots draw you into a world that is clean and untouched, hardly spoilt by humans. It resonates with everything Thien is doing to cleanse his soul. The silent pauses and the slow camera movements by cinematographer Dinh Duy Hung are a treat to watch. Thien’s journey is a spiritual one of sorts as he is a wandering soul having lost all his loved ones. He has every reason to be angry with God and this journey is turning into a self-discovery trip for him. If he did believe in God and religion, would his life be any different? These are questions we sometimes ask ourselves but only when we are in a situation that makes us question everything. This is the core idea the film wants to convey to us. Every landscape shot that is shown has a meaning behind it for Thien and the audience. Nothing is shown for the sake of taking up more screen time.
Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell as the name aptly suggests is Thien’s lost soul, Thien’s burdens and everything else he chose to bear and live through. The sound design is pretty exceptional. Even the most silent of scenes has sound and the local ambience in every scene has been captured brilliantly. There are dream sequences edited in perfectly with the present timeline which makes the audience think if it is happening or if it is part of a dream. Thien An Pham loves the pan shots and uses a lot of horizontal pan shots throughout the film. The one scene where he decided to use a vertical pan instead is one of the best-acted scenes in the entire film involving Thien and Sister Thao. As the film comes to a close, the dark foggy evening changes to a bright sunny day with Thien dreaming about meeting his brother’s new wife and baby. He realizes his search may be futile but he has grown spiritually on this trip easing his soul a bit in the process.
Thien An Pham made a short called Stay Awake, Be Ready (2019) and this feature film seems like a sequel to that short. It probably is not, but it is interesting to think it could be. His shooting style also carried over and is a perfect fit for Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell as this being a feature there is no need to hurry with the shots. He takes his time to organically have a scene develop and it flows through nicely throughout the film. This film has to be seen on the biggest screen possible to truly appreciate and take in the full cinematic experience. This is a brilliant debut feature from one of the most visually gifted young directors of our time. I cannot wait to see what he will bring us next.
Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell won the Camera d’Or at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival and will be releasing in limited theaters in the US on January 19, 2024.