The Vertical Ray Of The Sun
As much as any filmmaker in the world, Vietnamese director Anh Hung Tran excels at composing dense, vibrant textures out of the delicate interplay of light and color, giving the illusion of a third dimension without the need for special glasses. His first film, the Oscar-nominated The Scent Of Green Papaya, is like a crystalline memory of 1951 Saigon, refined to perfection in the controlled environment of a French soundstage. Leaving the insularity of the studio for the chaotic streets of Ho Chi Minh City, Tran's masterful follow-up, Cyclo, documents the seedy, violent world of the Vietnamese underclass with the same pointillist's sensitivity to detail. For his third feature, the serenely beautiful The Vertical Ray Of The Sun, Tran splits the difference between the first two, updating Scent's muted drama and ornate sensuality to a natural, contemporary urban setting. Best approached as a tone poem rather than as conventional melodrama, the film opens with the first of several gorgeous sequences dedicated to the morning rituals of Tran Nu Yên-Khê (the director's wife) and her brother Quang Hai Ngo. Timed to the even tenor of Lou Reed's voice on The Velvet Underground's "Pale Blue Eyes," they greet the day with lethargic stretching exercises and t'ai chi, moving with the quiet symbiosis of a long-married couple. Right away, Tran establishes a tranquil mood with only the faintest hint of disturbance underneath, a mere suggestion that the siblings' intimacy is edging into more uncomfortable territory. With strong allusions to Chekhov, Ray centers on the subtly upended lives of three sisters living in Hanoi. Yên-Khê, the youngest, appears the most content, but she's beginning to suffocate in close quarters with her brother. Her older sisters, Nhu Quynh Nguyen and Le Khanh, are each married to restless artistsone a novelist, the other a photographerwho may or may not be having affairs. Strictly speaking, the drama doesn't kick in until around the 90-minute mark, when one of the sisters tentatively confronts her husband about his infidelities. For the most part, Tran keeps these volatile feelings in check, smothering them in the subdued, familiar patterns of ordinary life. Collaborating with ace cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-bin, who nearly outdoes his own stellar work on Wong Kar-Wai's In The Mood For Love, Tran turns Hanoi's lush, thick greenery into a dramatic linchpin that conspires to help people hide their secrets from each other. A pleasure to drink in frame by frame, Ray contains greater depths of emotion than its splendorous surface appears capable of holding.